Government Has Made America Inept

Philip K. Howard writes:

In February 2011, during a winter storm, a tree fell into a creek in Franklin Township, New Jersey, and caused flooding. The town was about to send a tractor in to pull the tree out when someone, probably the town lawyer, helpfully pointed out that it was a “class C-1 creek” and required formal approvals before any natural condition was altered. The flooding continued while town officials spent 12 days and $12,000 to get a permit to do what was obvious: pull the tree out of the creek.

Government’s ineptitude is not news. But something else has happened in the last few decades. Government is making America inept. Other countries don’t have difficulty pulling a tree out of a creek. Other countries also have modern infrastructure, and schools that generally succeed, and better health care at little more than half the cost.

Reforms, often embodied in hundreds of pages of new regulations, are tried constantly. But they only seem to make the problems worse. Political debate is so predictable that it’s barely worth listening to, offering ideology without practicality—as if our only choice, as comedian Jon Stewart put it, is that “government must go away completely—or we must be run by an incompetent bureaucracy.”

The missing element in American government could hardly be more basic: No official has authority to make a decision. Law has crowded out the ability to be practical or fair. Mindless rigidity has descended upon the land, from the schoolhouse to the White House to, sometimes, your house. Nothing much works, because no one is free to make things work.

Automatic law causes public failure. A system of detailed dictates is supposed to make government work better. Instead it causes failure.

The simplest tasks often turn into bureaucratic ordeals. A teacher in Chicago who called the custodian to report a broken water fountain was chewed out because he didn’t follow “broken water fountain reporting procedures.” On the first day of school he was required to read to his students a list of disciplinary rules, including this one, just to start things off on the right foot: “You may be expelled for homicide.”

It would be hilarious, if it wasn’t so sad.

Budgets are out of control because government executives lack flexibility to shave here and there to make ends meet. Soon after his election, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo thought he had found an easy way to save $50 million when he learned that a large juvenile detention center was empty, with no prospects of use anytime soon. There it was, sitting upstate, with several dozen employees—doing nothing but costing taxpayers millions of dollars. But no one had the authority to close it down, not even the governor. There’s a New York law that prohibits closing down any facility with union employees without at least one year’s notice. 

I look forward to Labour adopting this as policy!

Even matters of life and death are sometimes asked to yield to the rigid imperatives of a clear rule. In 2012, Florida lifeguard Tomas Lopez was fired for leaving his designated zone on the beach to rescue a drowning man just over the line. “On radio I heard Tommy saying ‘I’m going for a rescue but it’s out of our zone,’” said another lifeguard, who added that the “manager told him not to go and to call 911.” Lopez said he couldn’t just sit back, and was prepared to get fired, adding, “It wasn’t too much of an upset, because I had my morals intact.” After publicity about the incident, Lopez was offered his job back. He declined.

These are extreme examples, but they show why it is important to rely more on values and judgement than strict rules.

Let this be our motto: Just tell me the rules. In 2013, an elderly woman collapsed at an assisted living facility in Bakersfield, California, and a nurse called 911. The operator asked the nurse to try to revive the woman with CPR, but the nurse refused, saying it was against policy at that facility. “I understand if your boss is telling you, you can’t do it, but … as a human being … is there anybody that’s willing to help this lady and not let her die?” “Not at this time,” the nurse replied. During the seven-minute, sixteen-second call, the dispatcher continued to plead with the nurse: “Is there a gardener? Any staff, anyone who doesn’t work for you? Anywhere? Can we flag someone down in the street to help this lady? Can we flag a stranger down? I bet a stranger would help her.” By the time the ambulance arrived, the woman had died. The executive director of the facility defended the nurse on the basis that she had followed the rules: “In the event of a health emergency … our practice is to immediately call emergency medical personnel for assistance … That is the protocol we followed.”

Very sad.


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