Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Is government too big to govern?

There's a good article in the Atlantic titled 'When Humans Lose Control of Government'.  Here's an excerpt.

The Veterans Affairs scandal of falsified waiting lists is the latest of a never-ending stream of government ineptitude. Every season brings a new headline of failures: the botched roll-out of Obamacare involved 55 uncoordinated IT vendors; a White House report in February found that barely 3 percent of the $800 billion stimulus plan went to rebuild transportation infrastructure; and a March Washington Post report describes how federal pensions are processed by hand in a deep cave in Pennsylvania.

The reflexive reaction is to demand detailed laws and rules to make sure things don’t go wrong again. But shackling public choices with ironclad rules, ironically, is a main cause of the problems. Dictating correctness in advance supplants the one factor that is indispensable to all successful endeavors—human responsibility. “Nothing that’s good works by itself,” as Thomas Edison put it. “You’ve got to make the damn thing work.”

Responsibility is nowhere in modern government. Who’s responsible for the budget deficits? Nobody: Program budgets are set in legal concrete. Who’s responsible for failing to fix America’s decrepit infrastructure? Nobody. Who’s responsible for not managing civil servants sensibly? You get the idea.

Modern government is organized on “clear law,” the false premise that by making laws detailed enough to take in all possible circumstances, we can avoid human error. And so over the last few decades, law has gotten ever more granular. But all that regulatory detail, like sediment in a harbor, makes it hard to get anywhere ...

. . .

Legal detail skews behavior in ways that are usually counterproductive. Why did VA officials regularly falsify waiting times? Bureaucratic metrics required them to meet waiting time deadlines—or else they would forfeit a portion of their pay. Why didn’t they just do a better job? Compliance was basically impossible: Congress had mandated more VA services but only modestly expanded resources. Undoubtedly, better efficiency could have been squeezed out of available resources, but that would require liberating VA officials from civil-service straitjackets so they could manage other civil servants. Rigid bureaucracy, not the inexcusable dishonesty of VA officials, was the underlying cause of the VA scandal.

“Clear law” turns out to be a myth. Modern law is too dense to be knowable ...

. . .

What’s the alternative? Put humans back in charge. Law should generally be an open framework, mainly principles and goals, leaving room for responsible people to make decisions and be held accountable for results. Law based on principles leaves room for the decision-maker always to act on this question: What’s the right thing to do here?

There's more at the link.  Interesting, somewhat depressing, and very important reading, IMHO.



Able said...

I think that “Law should generally be an open framework, mainly principles and goals, leaving room for responsible people to make decisions [judgements] and be held accountable for results.” should be engraved in stone.

There is a tendency now (perhaps more there than here) for rigid interpretations of rules, regulations and laws. Previously judgement was pre-eminent in their application, now we get 'zero tolerance' and the like, and when something falls even slightly outside? We get another micro-managing, specific to the nth degree law added to cover that eventuality – repeat and rewash.

It is almost as if we are heading from the Anglo 'that which is not specifically forbidden, is allowed' to the Germanic 'that which is not specifically allowed, is forbidden'.

Your VA (and our NHS) scandals are, as they say, caused precisely by a rigid bureaucracy which views rules as sacrosanct, and more importantly, divorced from reality, and as a result there is no option but to 'work to the rule'. (We have 'waiting time targets' in A&E too. 'You will be seen/assessed by a medical professional within x minutes'. The result? Patients walk in, a nurse in reception 'assesses' you on filling in your paperwork. Followed by a 'triage nurse' within 10x, if you're lucky, after which you'll wait for hours to see a doctor. So the reason it takes so long is that staff forced to fulfil meaningless guidelines are taken out of the dept. where they could be actually treating people and so … reducing the waiting time in actuality?!? At the same time, whilst we can't afford any extra nurses, we get ten administrators who are 'needed' to shuffle the paperwork on waiting times. Isn't government managed socialised medicine a lark?).

Inconsiderate Bastard said...

There is a reason our country is named The United States of America.

The Founders recognized that government is a necessary evil - and, yes, it is an evil - and it needs to be small enough to be managed and close enough to the people it serves to allow them to manage it.

Our 50 state governments (sorry, I meant "57 state governments") by themselves have become too large and byzantine to be successfully managed, but there's a better chance of you and your neighbors accomplishing that than there is of any meaningful resolution of the problems Washington creates.

The federal government should be reduced by 70% and the remainder herded back into its Constitutional corral; from there we can tackle the states, or watch some of them wither as they lose in competition with the others.

Paul said...

The ten commandments. Everything else is superfluous.

The states take care of the states and the feds make sure one state does not do something like define an 1" at 3/4" or some such nonsense. each state has a militia of which a portion is provided to the feds to make up the federal army.

That should go a long way towards cleaning up the mess the US has become.