Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Making Government More Effective & Less Costly

Here's a piece that is almost guaranteed to resonate with what many people are thinking, but also fall far short of motivating them to action.
But that's just my opinion.
I'll start by reproducing this from a recent NYTimes:

Small-Town Big Spending
Published: April 19, 2009

DURING these uncertain times we’ve yet to hear a phrase with the resonance of Franklin Roosevelt’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” but there are a couple of minor-chord expressions that should have staying power.
One is the observation of Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, that “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” Another comes from my boss, Jeff Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric, who has warned, “This is not a cycle; it’s a reset.”

Taken together, these remarks challenge us to go beyond trying to quickly fix the immediate problems of toxic mortgages, risky banks, a struggling American car industry and escalating health care costs.
If the American people are tuned into the need to change the irresponsible, inefficient practices and systems that created those problems, why not enlist them to take the next step and radically change the antiquated public structures that exist beyond the Beltway?

Here are a few examples.
It’s estimated that New York State has about 10,500 local government entities, from townships to counties to special districts. A year ago a bipartisan state commission said that New Yorkers could save more than a billion dollars a year by consolidating and sharing local government responsibilities like public security, health, roads and education.

One commission member, a county executive, said, “Our system of local government has barely evolved over the past one hundred years and we are still governed by these same archaic institutions formed before the invention of the light bulb, telephone, automobile and computer.”

In accepting the commission’s recommendations, Gov. David Paterson promised to work diligently to put the changes into effect.
When his budget was presented this spring it included several of the proposed changes, but it immediately met stiff resistance even from members of his own party who were determined to protect their parochial interests.

It appears that few of the original recommendations will survive.
In my native Great Plains, North and South Dakota have a combined population of just under 1.5 million people, and in each state the rural areas are being depopulated at a rapid rate.
Yet between them the two Dakotas support 17 colleges and universities.
They are a carry-over from the early 20th century when travel was more difficult and farm families wanted their children close by during harvest season.

I know this is heresy, but couldn’t the two states get a bigger bang for their higher education buck if they consolidated their smaller institutions into, say, the Dakota Territory College System, with satellite campuses but a common administration and shared standards?

Iowa, next door, is having its own struggles with maintaining population, especially among the young.
As the Hawkeye State’s taxpayers grow older and less financially productive, the cost of government services becomes more expensive.
Yet Iowa proudly maintains its grid of 99 counties, each with its own distinctive courthouse, many on the National Register of Historic Places — and some as little as 40 miles away from one another.
Each one houses a full complement of clerks, auditors, sheriff’s deputies, jailers and commissioners.
Is there any reason beyond local pride to maintain such duplication given the economic and population pressures of our time?

This is not a problem unique to the states I have cited.
Every state and every region in the country is stuck with some form of anachronistic and expensive local government structure that dates to horse-drawn wagons, family farms and small-town convenience.

If this is a reset, it’s time to reorganize our state and local government structures for today’s realities rather than cling to the sensibilities of the 20th century.

If we demand this from General Motors, we should ask no less of ourselves.

[Tom Brokaw, a special correspondent for NBC News, is the author, most recently, of “Boom! Talking About the ’60s.”]

Bringing this discussion closer to home, there are major opportunities for reforming our State Government right here in Washington.
An excellent book, 'A Majority of One: Legislative Life' published by Civitas Press and authored by former State Senator George W. Scott, who has also served as State Historian, illustrates the scope and magnitude of some of our problems - which were created at the time Washington first became a state.

Here are a few bipartisan excerpts taken from the Internet advertising of this very readable book:

Tells everything you wanted to know about legislating -- but would have to get elected to find out!

Here is the excitement, confusion and glory of democracy for political aficionados, candidates, lobbyists, public officials, students and those who need to know how laws are made.

A Majority of One shows how the turmoil of Watergate and Vietnam, abortion, the environment and judicial activism "transformed three part governance by legislatures, governors and courts into five part ones -- and made staff and lobbyists now as powerful as legislators."

Politicians are activists not authors. Only three serious books have been written by legislators about their craft in the last 40 years. Senator Scott (Ph.D., history, University of Washington), also brings his professional lives as a manager in the private and non-profit sectors, in higher and education as State Archivist to explain the legislative environment.

Readers Praise A Majority of One:

“Anyone who cares about representative government must read this book. George Scott captures the essence of legislative action with the knowledge only an insider can bring. He does it with perception, wit and humor.
Daniel J. Evans (R) 
Former State House Majority Leader,
 Governor, and U.S. Senator

“Senator George Scott has provided us with a warm, insightful appreciation of the legislative process that few outsiders can offer. This is a must read for students of state government.”
Phil Talmadge (D) 
Former Washington State Senator 
and State Supreme Court Justice

“By far the best description of a state legislature’s real operation in print -- from a legislator who knew what was happening -- and why.”
Slade Gorton (R) 
Former Majority Leader Washington State House of Representatives, Washington State
 Attorney General, and U.S. Senator

“A primer on how the legislature works. All who care about popular democracy should read this.”
James Dolliver 
Former Chief Justice,
 Washington State Supreme Court

“Here is a unique legislative atlas by an insider. High idealism, deep frustration, inspiration, humor, and hundreds of public, corporate and personal interests all boil under a legislative dome. Who can fail to be intrigued?”
Lois North (R) 
Former State Representative, Senator,
 and Chair of the King County Council

“Rarely, and I am tempted to say never, do we find an insider’s political savvy combined with the scholarly analysis that George Scott devotes to A Majority of One. Scott is unmatched in his command of the voluminous archival source materials involved here and his use of first-hand experience in weaving them into an absorbing account. This book is a practical guide for understanding the grassroots politics and placing these practices in the bigger picture of local, state, and national affairs. A Majority of One is a must read for both the concerned citizen and the political pro.”
David H. Stratton
 Professor Emeritus of History 
Washington State University

“Legislative leaders are activists. George Scott is also a trained historian. Majority is a unique, inclusive insider’s first-hand look at legislating, documented in depth. It is the place to start for students of the process, campaigners, legislators and those who care about politics.”
Jeannette Hayner (R) 
Former Member of the House. Minority, and Majority Leader, Washington State Senate

“Here we have Machiavelli, modernized and localized. Substitute Medici Florence with Olympia in the 1960, 70s, and 80s, a period of political renaissance of a sort in this state. In place of “The Prince,” Scott centers on principal players in state government during this expansive and turbulent time. George brings Niccolo’s same absorbed analysis to the interaction of these politicians and political institutions for an understanding of how things worked in recent history and still work now.”
Alan Thompson (D)
 Publisher, former Majority Leader 
State House of Representatives, 
State Senator, 
and Chief Clerk of the House


Changes to organization structures are daunting to say the very least, but sometimes necessary if the desire to make things work better are desired.
The way things are right now in the State of Washington are similar to what the Dakotas, Iowa and New York are experiencing.
Except, Washington may be worse!

As a brief example, let me cite a comment made decades ago by former House Leader, Jim Farley, which referred to the lower 48 as 47 states and the 'Republic of Washington'.
His reason for making this observation -way back in 1947- is the same as it would be today; Washington is over burdened with a ridiculous patchwork of publicly authorized agencies, special purpose districts, which fracture the functions of government unnecessarily.

Additionally, these various public entities require more elections, officials, public meetings and limited authority than is reasonably practical.
Instead of achieving their original goal of clearly defining roles and responsibilities and limiting over concentration of power, these profligate agencies have achieved the opposite, with disfunction, non-cooperation and public disinterest more in evidence.
It is not often that founders can anticipate with accuracy, the twists, turns, needs and complications of the future, which is why revisions are sometimes required.
It is past time for such reforms in the State of Washington!

But, where will this effort begin?
I suggest the best chance of starting such a movement might be by local initiative.
And what better time than when we are experiencing dire economic conditions?
Anyone see an opportunity here that they are willing to commit time and energy on?