I just saw a speech given by Philip J. Howard on the topic of Fixing Broken Government
. The LongNow introduces
Philip J. Howard as "a conservative who inspires standing ovations from liberal audiences." They fail to mention that he does this primarily by making fun of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party.
In a very convincing speech, he highlighted how there are many problems that originate from overly complicated rules that are more effective at creating paperwork than in getting the job done. A lot of more of these rules exist today because old laws stay on the books while new ones are added on by a congress who doesn't feel like its job is to fix older laws and regulations.
While he has been involved in attempts to fix regulation on a micro level, Philip has three main reforms that he believes would help solve many of these issues on a systematic level.
1. Laws need to sunset automatically. This would stop laws from piling up and make the special interests actively fight to protect their favored laws rather than let them target any lawmaker who decides to do anything about their laws.
2. Government officials need to be able to use more discretion in the performance of their jobs. This would allow for simpler laws and prevent bureaucratic disasters. It will also allow the government to hire more competent employees, the kind who can get the job done without being bogged down by paperwork or always having to follow a poorly planned checklist of procedures. There also needs to be someone who can green-light a project once a reasonable amount of background research has been done. The interstate highway system was built in 15 years, but today it takes 10 years of feasibility studies and environment assessment before they are even thinking of building windmill off the coast of Massachusetts.
3. Government officials need to be more accountable for their performance. This basically means that they need to be able to be fired. This makes it so the government officials who aren't handling the responsibility they are given can be gotten rid of.
Unfortunately, I became even more pessimistic about fixing broken government after hearing this part of the speech. The problems that were outlined were much more salient than the solutions that were offered. When more and more laws sunset automatically, special interests will become more adept at getting them renewed. If a reform that automatically sunsets old laws is ever passed it will hopefully be in conjunction with a congress who is willing to do something about the problem of old laws cluttering the books at the same time. However, once congress grows complacent about this issue and the special interests remain vigilant, it is hard to see how even a large procedural change will do much good in the long term.
The next two steps go hand in hand. Workers who cannot be fired cannot be given very much leeway in their jobs. In China, local bureaucrats who have discretion with their jobs but are not accountable to anyone but party elders have made millions of dollars selling the land of villagers to large corporations.
But even if government workers can be fired (by their superiors for lower ranked workers or the higher ranked ones by voters), there are many other problems with giving government workers too much discretion. In many cases, the government is deciding on whether to award permits that could be worth millions of dollars to businesses who can easily afford to buy the decision maker. The corruption can happen either directly or indirectly. In Japan, the indirect corruption is subtle: regulators get appointed to the boards of private corporations
after they retire. Giving government workers more leeway and accountability might still be better than the status quo, but it will open up a whole new can of worms.
While expanding the three solutions to all of government might take some work, the school system is one area where these types of changes could create an immediate positive impact. One scary statistic is that it cost the Los Angeles School Distract $3.5 million dollars
when it tried to fire 7 teachers over the last 10 years. This means that teachers are not by any means accountable once they get their tenure. Another statistic comes from a study which finds that the US would be on top of international math and science educational rankings
if we replaced the bottom 5 to 8% of teachers with average teachers. If the reforms that Philip is pushing were applied only in schools then there could be real progress.
While the chance of a larger fix to the problem of bad governance happening anytime soon doesn't look too likely, it is good to know that there are people identifying and coming up with potential solutions to these types of problems.