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.