October 11, 2015

Observations About Government - March 2008

Recently, because I concluded the first phase of a two-part assignment as Chairman of a commission created to recommend reform of the Connecticut Department of Transportation, I have been asked to share my observations about government to a number of audiences. I will begin that process in this blog, but, because I have learned so much, I will probably cover this subject over several blogs.

By the way, my comments are not meant to be critical of individual government officials, most of whom I respect greatly. In fact, as you will see, government officials have to overcome huge structural and political obstacles to get anything done, and, given the constraints that have been put in their path, anything they do has to border on the heroic.

What are my observations?

The Federal Government increasingly conditions its grants of funds to states and localities to issue extremely detailed regulations on how states and localities will operate.

In fact, not only does the federal government regulate how its specific grant money will be spent, but it conditions its grants on state and local government actions arguably very far afield from the use of the grant money. For example, I learned that, to get certain kinds of federal highway funding, a state must enact “open container” legislation which prohibits open liquor containers in the front seat of motor vehicles. While “open container” legislation is laudable, it has no obvious effect on whether the state is wisely spending the federal highway money.

Similarly, the federal government now mandates that states collect certain traffic information relative to travel through construction zones on highways, again, something laudable, but not specifically relevant to the purposes of the grants given. The National Motorists Association blog further questions these mandates.

The federal government is increasingly managing day-to-day activities of states and localities through regulations issued in connection with its power to grant money, and many of these regulations are not specifically authorized or contemplated when legislation appropriating the money is enacted.

While conditioning federal grant money on compliance with regulations that have little to do with the purpose of the grant is not new, the scope and volume of these compliance requirements has increased with each piece of omnibus transportation legislation.

In the transportation funding area, as one of the members of the National Surface Transportation Commission, which recently completed a transportation study, suggested federal regulations now add approximately four years to a state transportation project, which means that federal funding adds considerable time and cost, with relatively little benefit.

Some propose leveraging the role of information technology in the rulemaking process, as highlighted in this Harvard University blog Complexity and Social Networks.

Many governments have become weaker because of a variety of laws, regulations, and practices, at a time when citizens demand and need bolder government actions, and when weakness has serious financial consequences.

Our country’s founders clearly and wisely focused on creating checks and balances to prevent centralized government tyranny. Over time, as federal and state governments have experienced instances of government misconduct or ineptitude, they have layered on to existing laws and regulations additional constraints on government’s ability to act arbitrarily or engage in misconduct. While each of these constraints is individually defensible, the cumulative impact has not been examined in terms of whether it weakens government so much that it can no longer take bold actions required to meet pressing public needs.

In Connecticut, the state has no county government, highly fragmented municipal government, state agencies that have key functions controlled by other state agencies, thinly-staffed legislative offices, significant transportation assets controlled by multiple governmental entities, annual spending caps, and a variety of other practices that make it difficult for bold, strategic actions to get done. I like living in Connecticut, and I admire most of our elected and appointed leaders, but I believe that they have to overcome horrific obstacles to get anything done.

I’ve identified a few blogs that discuss Connecticut’s legislative actions and responsibilities in length: Connecticut Smart Growth and Connecticut Local Politics.

Business leaders are increasingly disengaged from broad-based participation in governmental decision making.

While I have noticed the long-term trend of reduced business engagement in government in Connecticut, I have found that this trend is noticed by others around the country. In a wonderful autobiography written by former California State Assembly Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, Basic Brown, he comments on the declining participation by business leaders in San Francisco civic and government activities. Like me, he found that they are so preoccupied with global and, to some degree, national issues, that they have no time to address state and local issues.

Yet what happens at the state and municipal level increasingly matters more than ever. Factories, call centers, research centers, and corporate headquarters are in specific locations because business leaders believe that those locations can attract and retain talent. To the degree that governmental functions deteriorate and businesses do not engage to prevent that deterioration, the business’ competitiveness deteriorates also.

Harvard Business online initiates a debate on this topic in its Conversation Starter blog post “The End of Corporate Social Responsibility”.

We have a crisis in this country because of the overwhelming gap between the bold actions governments need to take and the limited freedom to act we have we have given them. All citizens, but particularly business leaders, cannot be spectators relative to government processes as we move forward.