Monday, October 3, 2011

Smaller or Bigger - It really doesn’t matter

I read a great article on Bloomberg news the other day by Edward Glaeser, on how we, as a nation, might be able to move forward with government reform by focusing on quality rather than quantity. As Mr. Glaeser puts it:

“The important challenge today is to make government smarter and more effective, not slightly bigger or smaller.”

I agree whole heatedly. Unfortunately, my experience with government housing programs has proven to be a mixed bag in the “smarter and more effective” department. Having worked in a state housing agency and managed several contracts with both state and federal agencies I believe I’ve ran the full gambit of problems. These include unending paperwork, lack of clarity in regulations, changing interpretation of rules, and just plain bureaucratic morass (and that includes more “asses”, too).

But I’ve also experienced the hope that things can be better and more efficient at times. Unfortunately, these moment of hope are usually attributed to the work of a couple of really great people and not a systems change that will have wide spread impact on other programs or services. This doesn’t mean that there are no talented leaders in government agencies, rather that many of the system in place already are generally designed to quash the ingenuity and creativity that will bounce government programs out of their ruts.

This is where I turn to the nonprofit sector for hope. Nonprofits can be as bad as governments, especially when their leadership settles into a path that was successful yesterday, but may need to change today in order to maintain relevancy. One of my favorite thinkers on this subject is Dan Palotta.

Mr. Palotta recently wrote a great article the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and how they can improve customer service. about one of the first steps that government agencies can take in improving, customer service. Dan’s article on the TSA gave several simple tips on how the perception of the TSA would be greatly improved if they implemented several simple customer service tactics like not shouting at your customers, allowing employees to improve equipment to meet customer needs and creating a more relaxed and comforting atmosphere in security lines.

While I agree 100% with Dan, I’m really hopeful that the issues and ideas that Mr. Glaeser’s touches on can be used to create greater efficiency not only within government agencies, but for the customers they serve.  

Among my favorites it the consolidation, or at least cooperation and communication, among poverty related program. Mr. Glaeser in just a few words sets out a simple plan to improve the impact of our poverty support system that I believe would have an enormous impact.

“A 21st-century anti-poverty program would ensure that similar households would get similar levels of total benefits. It would look holistically at every household receiving public support, and determine whether a recipient is getting the right mix of financial support and aid in kind, such as housing vouchers or medical benefits. Is providing so much aid in the form of food stamps appropriate given the U.S. obesity epidemic?”

One piece of silver lining that I’ve seen recently is the plan by USDA, HUD and other federal agencies involved in affordable housing to consolidate rule and regulatory practices so that multiple agencies do not have multiple ways of collecting the same data or adhering to the same policy.  For example, USDA and HUD both require property condition assessments and appraisals when applying for funding to rehab older housing projects. For years now I have worked with developers that struggle to provide two separate reports in order to meet the different standards each agency has. The good news is that these agencies are now working on more than 20 similar issues to make their programs more accessible and efficient for clients and themselves.

Another of my favorites is the idea of charging for congestion on highways. I have to admit that this is one of the great proposals that Rick Perry had a few years back, and despite the political backlash, I am hopeful it will become the corner stone of new and improved highway systems across the U.S.

“Once upon a time, it was expensive to pay for roads with tolls, so we turned to gas taxes. But technology has made it easy to charge drivers without tollbooth personnel or even forcing users to slow down. Singapore, the second densest nation on earth, has free-flowing roads because drivers pay for the congestion they cause.”

Paying for infrastructure with user fees is the best model for rebuilding America because it eliminates bridges-to-nowhere and pushes us toward more economically valuable investments. The public sector still needs to help plan and coordinate infrastructure, but the actual road construction and maintenance can be done by properly regulated, privately funded entities.”

I agree. As an avid fisherman I’m happy to pay for access to public parks and for my annual fishing licence so that game wardens can monitor and protect our natural resources.  Maybe that’s not a good example, but I also love tolls roads, especially when they are generally better maintained and faster than the antiquated interstate highway system.

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