Posts Tagged ‘Good Government’
November 5th, 2012 at 4:45 pm
Want to Reduce Public Spending? Make Government More Efficient
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There’s a certain strain of thinking on the right that scoffs at the notion of “efficient government.” The skepticism of what seems to be an unobjectionable goal has a few sources.

First, many pundits point out that the nation’s constitutional design is predicated on checks and balances that make government anything but efficient — the explicit goal, after all, is to slow the lawmaking process in an attempt to ensure some measure of deliberation. They’re right about that, of course, but that’s an observation on the lawmaking process, not on implementing or enforcing the law.

Second, conservatives note (also rightly) that government by its very nature (i.e., the lack of market incentives present in the private sector) has a built-in bias towards sclerosis and waste. That’s true as far as it goes, but arguing that government can’t be administered perfectly is not the same as arguing that it can’t be done better.

For a good example of the potential of reformist public administration, one need look no further than the example that Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels set with that most hated of bureaucracies, the DMV (though in Indiana it’s the BMV — The Bureau of Motor Vehicles). Consider this excerpt from Andrew Ferguson’s fabulous profile of Daniels in a 2010 issue of the Weekly Standard:

The state Bureau of Motor Vehicles, another patronage sump that was routinely ranked one of the worst in the country, was drastically reorganized. “[Daniels] likes metrics,” [Director of the Indiana OMB Ryan] Kitchell said. “He likes to measure outcomes.” Every line item in the state budget has at least one objective formula attached to it to indicate how well each service is being delivered. Regulatory agencies track the speed with which permits and variances are granted. The economic development agency has to compare the hourly wage of each new job brought to the state with the average hourly wage of existing jobs. In the case of the BMV, the two most important metrics were wait times and customer satisfaction. Now each receipt is stamped with the time the customer arrives and the time his transaction is completed. Wait times have dropped from over 40 minutes to under 10 minutes. Surveys put customer satisfaction at 97 percent.

So it can be done. And by the way, it’s also a cracker jack method for keeping government outlays under control. From Walter Russell Mead, writing at his Via Meadia blog:

… By 2025, fully 34 percent of US GDP will be eaten up by the cost of providing public services. Throw in little items [like] interest on the burgeoning national debt and pension and other liabilities, and we are looking at basic governance costs and obligations close to 40 percent of GDP—and heading inexorably higher…

There are two basic drivers behind these numbers: the first is the well known demographic problem that comes from the combination of increased longevity and falling birth rates. Programs like Medicare cost more as people live longer, and reduced population growth means that the workforce grows more slowly than the number of old people drawing on government services and transfer programs.

But the second driving force, which [an] Accenture [study] highlights very usefully, is less well understood: the catastrophically slow growth of productivity in the government workforce. Think of this as “bureaucracy drag;” while productivity in the workforce as a whole is rising by 1.7 percent per year, and in private sector service industries it is rising by 1.5 percent each year, in government productivity is rising by a miserable 0.3 percent per year.

Bureaucrats aren’t getting the job done. And the rest of us are paying the price. It’s time for public sector executives around the country to take a page out of Mitch Daniels’ playbook.

June 29th, 2012 at 2:20 pm
Where Government Works
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Last weekend, the New York Times ran a must-read piece on the city of Sandy Springs, Georgia, an Atlanta suburb of nearly 100,000 residents that has managed to privatize the overwhelming majority of local government services — and is reaping incredible benefits as a result (another city with similar policies — Weston, Florida — was recently profiled in Governing).

Sandy Springs doesn’t have to worry about out of control public pensions, spiraling debt, or restive unions. The reason? It doesn’t have any of them.

Of course, this being the New York Times, their reporter, David Segal, might as well have been dispatched to the surface of Mars. Failing to find much in the way of practical drawbacks, he grasps for a moral failing, resulting in this unintentionally hilarious passage:

Hovering around the debate about privatization is a basic question: What is local government for? For years, one answer, at least implicitly, was “to provide steady jobs with good wages.” But that answer is losing its political tenability, says John D. Donahue of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. “A lot of jobs in government are middle-class jobs that in the private sector are not middle-class jobs,” he says. “People aren’t willing to support conditions for public workers that they themselves no longer enjoy.”

In a way, what Sandy Springs and other newly incorporated towns have done harks back to a 19th-century notion of taxation, which was much less about cross-subsidies and much more about fee for service.

To which I say “it’s about damn time.” If local government was ever about “steady jobs with good wages,” it was a mistake. The purpose of government is to provide vital services to the citizenry that aren’t produced by a free market. That may produce “steady jobs with good wages,” but that’s an effect of the endeavor, not a cause for it. If public service isn’t the goal, then the whole project is simply a racket to employ one group of people at another group’s expense.

What has the New York Times and the Harvard faculty aghast is the notion that government ought to serve some useful purpose for the taxpayers and that its value is measured only by the extent to which it fills that charge. That the citizenry of places like Sandy Springs and Weston are beginning to realize that is a real source of optimism for the future of local government.

February 16th, 2012 at 4:07 pm
Real Reform in California? It’s Not Too Good to be True
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Over at Ricochet, I have a post today on the inspired example being set by the city of San Diego, a rose among thorns in notoriously misgoverned California. Big labor is currently trying to impede an initiative set for the city’s June ballot that would completely overhaul public sector pensions, moving all new hires (sans police officers) into 401(k) style defined-contribution plans instead of the exorbitant defined-benefit systems that have left the city with a $2.1 billion pension deficit.

While that deserves a hearty commendation, it’s not necessarily evidence of a broader reformist bent. Public pensions, after all, have become the issue du jour in financially strapped cities and states throughout the nation.  What really proves the depth of San Diego’s commitment to good government is the lengths to which the city is going to improve the nuts and bolts of day to day public service. Consider this, from Governing Magazine:

The city also has implemented an effort that creates “managed competition” in which some city departments must offer the lowest bid in order to continue their operations, lest they be replaced with a third-party contractor who can do the job cheaper.

So far, employees who sweep the streets, maintain the vehicle fleet and work in the city publishing shop have all won those bids by pitching proposals that reduced expenses for the city. The next competition will involve the city’s landfill operations. “Employees know where the fat is,” [Mayor Jerry] Sanders said.

Meanwhile, under Sanders’ leadership, the city has shed about 1,800 positions, made pay cuts and freezes, and pushed huge reforms to the retiree health care system expected to save the city at least $700 million over 25 years.

Let’s hope San Diego keeps up the good work. Nothing will do more to undercut the case of California’s regnant liberals than an object lesson showing how successful an alternative model can be.

January 14th, 2010 at 11:58 pm
Convincing Libertarians to Love Government
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Reason Magazine, the premier libertarian publication in the country, continues to turn out some of the most interesting material in the world of right-leaning opinion journals.

In a piece entitled “Five Reasons Why Libertarians Shouldn’t Hate Government”, William D. Eggers and John O’Leary, authors of the new book “If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government” make an extremely lucid and compelling case that small government advocates also have to be smart government advocates.  In addition to the eponymous reasons, the piece also features a list of five major government successes and five major failures. The article is so good that I hesitate to quote it, lest Freedom Line readers not check out the original, but here’s a taste:

“I don’t want to make government work better, I want it to go away” is the typical response [of libertarians to arguments about improving government]. Government, in their view, is the enemy.

This way of thinking is deeply misguided, a troubling blind spot that keeps libertarians on the fringe of many policy debates. If you reflect only scorn for government, it’s hard to get anyone who hasn’t already drunk the Kool-Aid to take your opinions on the topic seriously.

This is not to disparage the argument that government is too large, for which the case is strong. But holding government in sneering contempt is a misinformed corruption of that sentiment.

Our Founding Fathers, fondly quoted by limited-government advocates, didn’t view government as evil, but as a flawed institution with some important jobs to do. They studied how government worked and they served in office, not because they viewed government with disdain, but because they knew the importance of good government.

Read the whole thing. I command you.