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Government By Performance

I have (I hope) now described how government by performance works, and how we can get there incrementally, rather than jumping off a cliff all at once. What I may not have managed to convey is all the benefits I believe performance based government will provide, so this final page will hit the high points.

Measuring performance

It is an article of faith for many, if not all Americans, that "the government can't do anything right". American vernacular is full of phrases like "good enough for government work". Americans seem to put up with shoddy work from their government out of a sense that there is nothing they can do to improve it. I believe that government can do a good job, but only if it is actually being held to a high standard.

Well meaning politicians start programs to address real problems, but no one ever follows up. No government program is ever monitored to see if it has actually been effective. When the solution is dictated from Washington, there are never any competing programs to measure against. Innovation is stifled by micromanagement. Following procedures and serving time is more important than achieving a real solution to a real problem. Government by performance puts an end to this problem forever.

The welfare reform passed in 1997 is a perfect example of this. Somehow Congress accidentally stumbled across the fact that the welfare system "doesn't work" after it spent three decades not working. I'd like to think that a performance based government might have noticed a little sooner than that.

End micromanagement

With Washington setting goals, not dictating means, we still get the benefit of national goals, but we do away with the nonsense of micromanagement from Washington. Each community can solve problems in the way that works best for that community. Communities all over the country can try innovative solutions. Good ideas invented in one place can be copied in thousands of other places. Instead of trying to make one size fit all, everyone gets a perfect fit.

End waste

With the combination of performance measurement and funding based on performance, together with making the details of every city's performance public, the American people will, for the first time, be able to see that their tax money is being spent wisely. The representatives they elect have set the performance goals and determined which factors are most important, which least important. The report cards will be there for everyone to read. If your city did a good job, you'll know it spent its federal grants wisely. If it did a poor job, and is losing its federal money, you'll be able to ask why and make changes in the next election.

The important thing is that money only continues to flow when cities and states do a good job compared to the other cities and states. The fact that the money dries up is not intended as some kind of punishment. It is just common sense not to throw good money after bad, and taxpayers deserve to see for themselves that the government is no longer going to waste their tax money on programs that are not effective.

With thousands of cities in the country, each taking their own approach to problems, some will have great success and some will have spectacular failure, but all the cities can learn from one another, avoid what doesn't work, and copy what does work. It would take fantastically intractable problems, or major corruption or incompetence for one city to be a continual failure year after year. Funding based on performance should keep all state and local governments on their toes and in the running for best performance.

Dilute Special Interest Influence

Special interest money seeks out congresscritters because the Congress is where money is allocated and decisions are made which influence the interests of the special interests. Nothing will ever stop this pursuit of Congress, but the less power Congress has, and the fewer decisions that are made in Congress, the less appealing it will be to spend money on Congress. Government by Performance by its very nature removes a lot of the decision making from Congress and parcels it out to state and local governments.

At the state and local government level, real citizens are much more likely to make their voice heard and compete successfully against special interests. The more power is parceled out to local governments, the more it is diluted and the harder it is for any special interest to find a target to attack. It is the difference between trying to catch 5 fish in a one gallon bucket and the same 5 fish in the Atlantic ocean.

Increase Public Participation

Because far more decisions are now made at the local level, the general public has a much greater opportunity to get involved and really make a difference. Most people today feel like they might as well talk to a brick wall as try to change something as remote and ponderous as the federal government, but local politicians are much more approachable, and with federal performance funds on the line, local politicians will always be on the lookout for new ideas that can help them do a better job.

Most people aren't likely to testify before Congress in their lifetime, but pretty much anyone can walk into a city council meeting, so the more decisions that are made locally, the better more people will feel about their chance to have a say in those decisions.

Establish Trust

Survey after survey shows that Americans consider their politicians lower lifeforms than used car salesmen. The level of trust has never been lower. Diplomats have always had a problem with trust, and they know the solution isn't to simply say "Well, despite that little invasion problem we had last year, you can trust us now!". That doesn't work, the trust just isn't there to give. We have the same problem between the people and the government. The trust simply isn't there to give anymore, it has been used up over the decades.

The only way to restore trust is to use the solution the diplomats use. Remember Regan's slogan for the nuclear disarmament treaties? "Trust, but verify!". The key is verification. The American people will not trust government to make good decisions until they can see open and honest evidence every day year after year for all the years it takes to restore trust that the government is doing a good job.

Fortunately, that is exactly the evidence that performance based government provides. All government is rated by performance, and the report cards are publicly available. Tax money is spent only on programs which are shown to be effective. Government by performance will allow us to restore that lost trust, and I can't think of any other change in government that could possibly bring that about.

Clean up Elections

In elections today, candidates spend most of their time slinging mud, but when they do talk about issues, it is usually about some laundry list of complicated programs that no one really understands. The programs are mostly manufactured by focus groups and are designed to sound good. What they would actually do in practice in anyone's guess, and the candidate is as much in the dark as the voters.

The election then consists of candidates hyping their own programs. Explaining how they will end war and cure cancer and cut taxes and get you free medical care and free cigarettes and anything else they can think of. Meanwhile they tell you what a disaster their opponent's program will be. And their opponents are saying the same things in reverse. Voters have very little opportunity to make a truly informed decision about any of the platforms, mostly because none of them could possibly live up to the billing.

With government by performance, the whole dynamic of elections will change. Elections are no longer about spinning platforms. Congress doesn't do much actual program creation anymore, so there is no call to go talking about the wonderful programs they plan to implement. Congress' primary job, once government by performance is fully implemented, is setting the priorities for this year. Adjusting the old priorities to match the changing world. Adding new goals, removing outdated ones.

In this climate, the election debate should be almost exclusively about what priorities different candidates would set. Should social agenda items be given a higher priority? Should economic items be reduced in importance? These are things anyone can understand. Not everyone will agree on the direction to go, but it moves the election debate towards a discussion of priorities. If there was ever a description of what an election debate should be about in an ideal world, "a discussion of priorities" is very close to that ideal.

Provide Direction

A popular question in polls is "Do you think the country is headed in the wrong direction?". For the last couple of decades the numbers for this question have hovered around 60 or 70 percent of the respondents saying they think it is, in fact, headed in the wrong direction.

I happen to think the question hasn't been phrased right. I'd like to see a question more like "Do you think your government has any idea what direction the country is headed in?". I suspect even more than 60 or 70 percent of the people would respond, "Not a clue!".

With government by performance we finally get a map. We not only have a "vision thing", we have it written down in black and white with hard numbers attached to it. Every year Congress produces the map in the form of the list of goals and priorities which will determine the way performance payments are distributed. For the first time in history, we have a clear and unambiguous declaration from the government that says, "These are the things we, as a nation, think are important, and attached to each item is a precise indication of just how important we think it is".

That is really a remarkable document to have, and government by performance will bring it to you.

Well, that's it. I'm finished hyping government by performance. I actually believe all this stuff, and if I've managed to convince you even half of it might be possible, I hope I've won a convert.

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Page last modified Mon Nov 24 22:23:37 1997