Each month EDA Director Jack Geller writes a commentary on topics of interest to community and economic developers across rural Minnesota. Below is a list of all commentaries with the most recent listed first.
Government Reform or Engineered Mediocrity?
The idea of reforming the way government operates has been a goal of both politicians and public officials alike. But like many catch phrases the idea of reforming government means different things to different people. To me the idea is simple; reforming the way an organization operates is about making the organization more effective in its efforts to carry out its mission and meet its goals. Sometimes these reforms save money and sometimes they don't. But whether the organization is public or private, for-profit or non-profit, the idea of reform is to make the organization function better.
In this regard, the 2011 Minnesota State Legislative session actually got off to a great start. Recall that early in the session the legislature passed and the Governor signed a landmark alternative teacher licensure bill; creating new pathways to bring experienced and educated professionals from business and industry into the classroom. Or recall the efforts of the legislature and the Governor in approving new expedited paths toward environmental permitting that shortens the review process in some cases from years to months. Whether you agree with these actions or not, there is little question that such actions fall into the category of reforming the way government operates.
But shortly after that it seemed like the agenda changed and the goal went from making government more efficient and effective to just cutting costs. Of course cutting costs are needed when you are facing a $5 billion deficit, but you should never lose sight of how such cuts will impact the effectiveness of the organization. On my campus of the University of Minnesota we just completed a very painful exercise to similarly cut costs by eliminating a number of academic programs, services and functions. Other universities across Minnesota have been similarly responding with the termination of academic programs and other services.
In these efforts we have been very careful to make what many call "vertical cuts" vs. "horizontal cuts." Essentially the point is to understand that while the elimination of an academic program may be detrimental to the students, faculty and staff members in that program, we should work diligently to ensure that it does not adversely impact the effectiveness of other programs that are not being cut. It's no doubt a difficult call, but in the end, you want those programs that will remain to still be strong, effective and poised for growth. Conversely, just cutting budgets across the board (or horizontally) simply weakens all programs and functions and makes the entire organization less effective. That's not what I would call reform - that's simply engineering organizational mediocrity.
Maybe the legislature should do the same thing. For example, if legislators no longer see the need or the priority for state government to engage in economic development, why not simply eliminate those functions from the Department of Employment and Economic Development? But to just cut the agency budget and leave all of its functions simply ensures that the agency will no longer be effective in carrying out its mission. Similarly, just cutting the budget for MinnesotaCare, leaving more than 100,000 Minnesotans uninsured is not government reform; it just makes these government programs less effective.
And that's the bottom line. When faced with the need to make significant budget cuts to an organization we know in advance that there will be plenty of pain and disappointment to go around. But we also need look beyond the cuts themselves and understand how the organization is to function in the future. In fact I would suggest that we need to recognize that if the Governor is our CEO and the Legislature is our board of directors, then their job is to ensure that whatever functions of government remain after these painful cuts are completed, work efficiently and effectively for the citizens of the state. Substantively cutting the budget is much more than just doing the math. In fact, solving the math problem is the easy part.
Sometimes the logic of treating such budget cuts simply as a math problem reminds me of the story we often hear about how some elderly people faced with limited budgets chose to cut their prescription pills in half. Or sometimes to save money they may choose to take their medication every other day instead of daily. Of course the result of lowering the prescription dosage through such actions simply renders the medication less effective or in some cases completely ineffective in treating their condition. But when asked why they would do this, many simply say that that they are just trying to "live within their means."
Geller is professor & head of the Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences at the University of Minnesota, Crookston. He also serves as the director of the federally-funded EDA Center at UMC. He can be reached at email@example.com