Thursday, October 28, 2010

Small Government for Bureaucrats

I had meant to get off the topic of small government for other subjects but a week of business related events and meetings has left me with some thoughts on small government from the perspective of the bureaucracy.

We see the inefficiencies of government up close, and to us these inefficiencies look radically different than they do to the public at large.  While the public rants about waste, fraud, and abuse we see up close that the waste is the result of the witch hunt for fraud and abuse and the completely insane level of accountability required by this accountability. 

From my experiences in both the lower rungs of private industry and the public sector I am amazed on a daily basis how much effort is put in by the public sector in trying to eliminate what the private sector writes off as shrinkage without a second thought.  But we can't avoid this, we can't simply give an expense account to an employee while traveling for fear that its use might be misinterpreted.  Every penny spent must be documented and looked over by what seems an infinite number of eyes.  It's insane, we know, but live in constant fear of a public obsessed by fraud and abuse so are terrified that an employee at a conference might be seen in a bar with friends from the area afterward.  This kind of nonsense just doesn't exist in the private sector and it only exists in the public sector because the public demands impossible to fulfill expectations and has been convinced that rampant abuse exists by those that politically benefit.  The truth is that we live on a leash that is virtually strangling us and that anyone with experience in the private sector knows is counter-productive and wastes heaps of public money eliminating a tiny fraction of fraud that is a natural part of any human organization.  This is the dirty secret of government that no politician, or bureaucrat for that matter, is willing to admit to publicly (and I probably wouldn't either if this blog weren't anonymous, you don't say this kind of thing), government waste and byzantine rules is largely the result of the hunt for fraud and abuse.  Use sensible rules like private industry would and government would rapidly become more efficient.

Another dirty secret no public official wants to admit to is that a great deal of inefficiency is due to antiquated legislation.  But heaven forbid that our enabling laws ever get brought up again for renewal, the public is protesting in favor of 18th century legislation not demanding new legislation so that we can start running things like we're actually in the 21st century instead of some timeless limbo where laws are based on Platonic principles.  There's an endless stream of commonsense stuff that we just can't do because we're trying to act within legislation and accountability procedures that are decades old.  What is obvious to do today didn't even exist when the laws we're accountable to were written.  We're trying to implement laws that make no sense in the modern context and waste incredible amounts of time trying to make something that would actually work today be defensible in legal terms that were written when mainframe was synonymous with computer, and for some agencies (not ours, thankfully) enabling legislation that may be older than this.

Unsurprisingly, between these two factors we get byzantine, incomprehensible procedures that lead to massive inefficiency.  We know what the public is demanding, and after we finish arguing back that we can't do whatever commonsense thing that you're suggesting, we go back and bitch to our colleagues how stupid it is that we can't do it.  We know perfectly well that a well placed few thousand dollars, and in extreme cases maybe a well placed $20, could save the state tens of thousands but we have accountability procedures that prefer that tens of thousands be wasted above board rather than a few hundred being spent that might sometimes be diverted to fraud, even if no where near often enough to equal that tens of thousands.  And guess what, we know from experience that we'll get nothing for saving that tens of thousands of dollars and will get punished very heavily for a few hundred that instead goes towards a scam.

The problem lies in a public that is so hostile to government that sensible reform becomes impossible and that we have to continually make major exertions  to prevent even the semblance of fraud or abuse.  Another problem is a public that demands that those working in government be angels, rather than human beings.  We can legitimately be held to somewhat higher standards than the private sector but with anything there are diminishing returns, there will always be some fraud and abuse and once it's low enough eliminating each additional increment is prohibitively expensive.  We're deep into that expense today.  Combine this with the ideal type of government based on eternal principles, rather than a continuously evolving social entity needing renewal for our rapidly changing social conditions, and you get a dysfunctional system constantly trying to retrofit completely obsolete legislation to get tasks done that were inconceivable when it was written.  The lack of trust in government, and the lack of demand for modern government, rather than government from an ideal past, promises that government will be big and bloated.  It has to be to make the ancient machinery work.


  1. Right, part of the problem seems to me to be too much unhelpful first principle and too little of what the principles mean in action.

    Your post reminded me of a story I was told. I've never been on a government payroll, but I once had a boss who had retired as Deputy Director of the CDC. To illustrate the very point you're making, he once told this story:

    A CDC employee had been dispatched to Arizona when an outbreak showed up in Alaska and he was sent directly from where he was to where he was needed. In wintertime. He hadn't brought any warm clothes from home to Arizona where they wouldn't be needed, so he bought a coat for Alaska where he desperately needed one.

    When he submitted the receipt for the coat in his expense report, it was turned down because there was a policy against expenses being claimed for clothing and he appealed because he felt the job created the need for a coat he wouldn't otherwise have bought.

    His appeal was rejected so he resubmitted a new expense report, receipts, everything to hoyle but with a note "The coat is in there but I bet you can't find it."

  2. Great story. While I've never seen anything quite this absurd I'm often amazed at the amount of documentation for even the smallest things and the byzantine rules involved in requesting anything. Often it seems the documentation costs more than what you're asking for.