Government

In California, Another Silly Plan to 'Reinvent' the Government

The Little Hoover Commission examines why Californians don't trust their government. Media and lack of funds, not corruption and inefficiency, cited as causes.

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As a science writer on a military base in the South in the late 1980s, I watched the Department of Defense "streamline" bureaucracy by embracing the then-fashionable ideas of Total Quality Management. Known for helping Japanese factories boost quality, "TQM" was about listening to ideas from workers at every level.

The managers on our base responded to this "bottom-up" process by giving a "top-down" diktat: Every worker would submit a list of improvements by some deadline. "TQM" became just another acronym in the long alphabet-soup list of programs.

At a Capitol hearing in Sacramento on Thursday, that nearly forgotten idea reared its head as California's government-reform agency, the Little Hoover Commission, examined why Californians don't trust their government. TQM was on a list of one speaker's management fads that, over the years, failed to improve services enough to restore the public's confidence in its governments.

"I found — no surprise — that as in the Pentagon, so in the rest of the federal government: Customs had no customers, only suspects," said Bob Stone, a 24-year defense official who led former Vice President Al Gore's program to "reinvent" government. "EPA had no customers, only polluters, IRS had evaders."

Since then, the federal government hasn't been reinvented. It's only gotten costlier.

Stone now works for the city of Los Angeles, which isn't any better than the feds, according to his prepared testimony: "The red tape and useless work of the Pentagon pale beside the practices of a city government that seems to be still living with the reforms of Hiram Johnson's time … We require a $160,000-a-year senior manager every month to personally sign 120 Visa slips generated by his organization."

The hearing started off with polling from the Public Policy Institute of California, which found strong majorities of Californians skeptical about the effectiveness, responsiveness and efficiency of the state and federal governments. (National surveys find similar things.) It's not just theoretical, either. "They do have real experiences which to them confirm these broadly held beliefs," said PPIC President Mark Baldassare.

Yet Stone and his fellow panelist, Billy Hamilton, the executive vice chancellor at the Texas A&M University system (and the speaker who mentioned TQM), proposed a new round of management reforms. A commission board member even blamed the media, in part, for these low trust levels.

Sure, Californians might be more trusting of their state government if the media didn't report on corruption scandals, unfunded pension and health-care liabilities, decade-long delays (and falsified test data) on the Bay Bridge and other infrastructure, the impossibility of firing misbehaving public employees, and the like. Having trust in government isn't a good thing, however, if that trust isn't deserved.

"Put the people who know what the problem is together with the people who have the power to fix it," Stone said, referring to it as a "magic formula." He complained that his city is "starved for funds" and doesn't have the cash needed to upgrade its infrastructure. This is so Sacramento: A hearing addresses a real problem, but never digs deep enough — or challenges enough sacred cows — to touch on real solutions.

Someone always makes the "more money" argument. In the private sector, companies would get rid of those unnecessary $160,000 managers (or lose business to competitors). Governments may be starved for cash to provide infrastructure. Is that because they don't tax enough, or because they've misspent what they have?

"There is only one boss," said Sam Walton, explaining the motivation of the company he founded (Walmart). "The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else."

By contrast, if Caltrans doesn't do a good job, we can't take our business somewhere else.

All the management fads in the world, however useful around the margins, aren't going to change that there are no real customers in government. Instead of trying to improve the efficiency of fundamentally inefficient bureaucracies, maybe the commission ought to hold hearings on alternative ways (e.g., privatization) to provide public services.

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  2. TQM was on a list of one speaker’s management fads that, over the years, failed to improve services enough to restore the public’s confidence in its governments.

    Wha… you DON’T say! Well then they should implement LEAN! Hire consultants who are LEAN certified! That will result in a mad flurry of supplies-cabinet cleanings, and then everything will go back the way it was before you spent $11 million on consultants!

    1. Not just LEAN, but 6-Sigma Certified LEAN implemented by Tiger Teams.

      1. I so don’t miss being employed.

      2. Unpossible. Everybody knows Six Sigma can only be implemented by Certified Champions, Master Black Belts, and Green Belts across a totally pro-active, fully-integrated enterprise.

        1. You too can leverage the synergy on a go-forward basis!

          1. I work for a company that is in the midst of a large management change brought on by the hiring of a new CEO. There are new VPs and other senior management folks who speak almost entirely in buzzwords and phrases taken straight out of the latest MBA textbooks. There have been a couple of occasions when I have had to try very hard to prevent guffawing loudly when several of them speak.

            1. Our CEO never misses a chance to say “I always say ‘think outside the box.'” I have to bite my lip every time I hear it.

              1. At some point, thinking inside the box IS thinking outside the box.

                Most problems that I run into in my biz are people doing shit that isn’t their job and that they’re not qualified to do. I suspect that, in most places, keeping people in their fucking boxes would result in improved outcomes immediately.

                1. Beatings might work.

        2. Been through all the above and Continuous Improvement and Reengineering and other crap I’ve forgotten.

          None of it works without… Competition.

          I manage improvement projects all the time. They only work when competition forces them to work. And competition forces management to require compliance.

          Yet another reason I believe government has to be minimized at all levels – it naturally bloats due to lack of competition.

          1. Wasn’t there a story recently about Chinese officials complaining that their subordinates were plagiarizing their mandatory self-criticism reports?

        3. Dog dry Consultants will agree with you for a price:

          http://ssg.mit.edu/group/alumni/hot/consult.html

          1. “Dogbert”…….fucking autocorrect.

  3. A commission board member even blamed the media, in part, for these low trust levels.

    If they would just shut up about all our graft, corruption, and incompetence, people would love us!

    1. That’s my impression.

  4. “The red tape and useless work of the Pentagon pale beside the practices of a city government that seems to be still living with the reforms of Hiram Johnson’s time ? We require a $160,000-a-year senior manager every month to personally sign 120 Visa slips generated by his organization.”

    Nothing left to cut!!!

  5. “Put the people who know what the problem is together with the people who have the power to fix it”

    What if “the Problem” is that government has both a strong incentive to spend and no real consequences for failure?

  6. TQM is still very much a thing, and actually a useful framework in some industries (Toyota and GE have both used their own implementations of the concept to great success).

    It has virtually no bearing on government though. Mostly for the reason mentioned: government has a captive audience, and also doesn’t produce anything. It’s hard to establish meaningful metrics to implement a TQM plan under those circumstances.

    1. TQM seems to work best in production environment and becomes kind of silly busy work in service industries.

      1. Not entirely. The Toyota “Lean” system is being adapted to hospitals, with some showing real success with it.

        1. TQM and Lean perhaps will work for companies that are so bloated that it long hanging fruit to anybody to see what can be eliminated. For many small companies, like mine, lean simply is another word for justifying cheap. And TQM simply creates the ability for people who have no idea what it takes to get something done in another department the ability to team them what to do. Nothing replaces talent adequately compensated. Everything else is some form of eye-wash by posers.

          1. long=low, team=tell

          2. I have taken Six Sigma classes and find them very useful, but in a small company you don’t need them that much – or just apply them as needed.

            Its big lumbering beasts that have 20 years of inertia that really can use them, but they can also just add them to their 20 year layer of stuff.

  7. Someone always makes the “more money” argument. In the private sector, companies would get rid of those unnecessary $160,000 managers

    First, they’d get rid of any idiot manager who proposed that “more money” can solve a problem, regardless of how much he made, and they would do it in a heartbeat. Though it may be incidental to a solution, “more money” does not solve any problem.

    The simple fact is that, like natural organisms, organizations must adapt to assure their survival. The private enterprise must continually adapt and innovate because a dynamic, free market environment continuously poses an existential threat to its survival. Governments face no such threat to their survival unless they face competition from a rival government in war or an insurrection. That’s why governments do adapt and innovate well in technologies that improve capabilities in war and surveillance, and can be quite creative in developing programs to oppress and suppress potential insurgents.

    1. Logical solutions solve problems. Cost assessment of the solution is part of the analysis.

  8. Having trust in government isn’t a good thing, however, if that trust isn’t deserved.

    They are asking the wrong question. They are asking “Why don’t people trust us?” rather than “Why aren’t we trustworthy?”

    The first question is, implicitly, “What’s wrong with the public in that they don’t trust us?”

  9. “I found ? no surprise ? that as in the Pentagon, so in the rest of the federal government: Customs had no customers, only suspects,” said Bob Stone, a 24-year defense official who led former Vice President Al Gore’s program to “reinvent” government. “EPA had no customers, only polluters, IRS had evaders.”

    So a system that operates via involuntary funding and whose employees possess no compelling interest save our shared humanity (insert laugh track) to treat others with decency doesn’t treat others decently?

    Next thing you’ll be telling me that prison guards are often rude to prisoners or that police officers frequently abuse their authority. It’s as though systems of coercion breed antisocial behavior, whereas cooperation and mutual gain breed sociability.

  10. The hearing started off with polling from the Public Policy Institute of California, which found strong majorities of Californians skeptical about the effectiveness, responsiveness and efficiency of the state and federal governments. (National surveys find similar things.) It’s not just theoretical, either. “They do have real experiences which to them confirm these broadly held beliefs,” said PPIC President Mark Baldassare.

    Anyone want to bet that a list of said “real experiences” was attached to the report, under the heading Things We Need to Frickin Fix?

  11. Why are so many politicians in Sacramento corrupt?
    Because they’re Democrats with not serious opposition from other parties. One look at district maps explains why. Rigged to keep as many Dems in office as possible.

    Why don’t we trust them? How many people REALLY want a high speed rail system? Less than 6% according to one poll. No one really likes that unlawful immigrants get free health care or unemployment (except the immigration advocates).

    Sanctuary cities should not receive Federal funding, period.

  12. So they are saying that people don’t trust the California government because there is no Pravda?

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