It occurs to me that these three blog posts (New Year’s Resolutions 1-3) may be the early notes for a new book (The Building Blocks of a Better American Society):
Find systems of value beyond money and profits.
Commit to the Golden Rule.
Make Government that Works and Works for Us
It is common and quite popular to dislike “government,” or “big government.” “Government” has become a bad word to many. There is even a new brand of politician—the anti-government politician.
But we need government—good government. It is a key part of the organizational framework of our society. It doesn’t have to be the only framework, but is a necessary part of it.
And it is not a foregone conclusion that government has to be bad—even “big government” does not need to be bad. On the other hand, we need to be frank. Modern American government is largely terrible. We focus primarily on the elected aspects of the government, but there’s a very large part that is un-elected (and terrible)—the bureaucracy.
We need both better elected government, but also need to re-focus the bureaucracy, which holds an incredible amount of power and say over our lives. In health care, for example, un-elected bureaucrats make decisions that make or even break your care (and your lives). Re-organizing, and finding ways to make government actually work for us is one of the keys to finding our way in this so far disturbing 21st century.
We really have a good understanding of how to re-organize elected government. Remove the drivers of corruption and distrust:
Remove money from politics
Stop the revolving door between government and the lobbies
Reasonable term limits
Improve voting rights and access for all Americans
Re-organize voting districts and structures to be fair to all
We can and must do this. Conceptually it is not difficult. It is affecting change in this dysfunctional, badly-behaving government that is hard.
It is fixing the bureaucracy that is the hard part conceptually. The national conversation usually focuses on cutting back the bureaucracy. There are two inherent aspects of these cuts: 1. that smaller government is better government; and, 2. That certain aspects of government (that pertain to the arts or women’s health or helping the poor) don’t properly reflect our “values.” But neither “smaller” government nor this re-valued government is necessarily better government. In fact, we know from experience that it is often worse.
We must develop a better method to improve the bureaucracy. We should start with some basic questions, like:
What is the purpose of government and the bureaucracy?
How can the bureaucracy be organized and function in a way that supports people and our values rather than fights or hurts them?
Many government institutions got their start literally hundreds of years ago, and were founded upon ideas that are just as old. We must question whether these institutions are capable and/or appropriate for our modern challenges? If not, they must be changed.
We intuitively know that our overly-complicated and opaque government bureaucracy must be stream-lined and opened up to the light of day. But we must also look at bureaucratic methodologies and examine their strengths and weaknesses.
Problem number one is the idea that bureaucrats can create branching flow charts that encompass every “if-then” scenario in modern life, and at every juncture, they can use regulation to force people to go in the direction of their liking. This thinking leads to regulatory over-load, and almost always creates unintended consequences that become our focus. In addition, this highly technical and prescriptive approach to regulating doesn’t work because real-life situations rarely flow in such simplistic and linear directions. In other words, it doesn’t work in many real-life circumstances.
One of our other most damaging bureaucratic philosophies is the over-reliance on data. The mantra attached to every program and idea has become, “How are you going to measure that?” There is a mistaken idea among bureaucratic circles that all issues can be objectively broken down, assessed, and managed by collecting reams of data. But data, not utilized with incredible care, is a false God.
We collect data obsessively, to the detriment of almost all else. Then we use incentives and penalties, often based on poor-quality data, and when the data doesn’t really reflect true notions of what constitutes “quality.” These efforts too often fly in the face of reason. It is also an approach that is administratively burdensome, and soul-crushing to professionals who are no longer valued for their judgment, caring, or hard work. It also, far too often, is just not an effective approach.
Another huge problem is that we have no mechanism to retire old regulation. So, we tend towards more and more complexity and layers of dysfunction that clog off our ability to do anything but comply with burgeoning regulation. And we are then left with a world obsessed with regulatory compliance with a maze of rules that often run counter to what is necessary or functional.
The first step towards a better bureaucracy is a moratorium on all new regulation, an analysis of current government bureaucratic structures and functions, but most important, a framework to re-work it all to be more stream-lined and functional.
We must ask the question, “How can government help?” This must become the American government’s mission, and the answers must form the government’s highest priorities and shape its values.