THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 109, February 19, 2001
All the Presidents' Wars
Efficiency Isn't the Only Concern
by Vin Suprynowicz
Special to TLE
On Tuesday, Jan. 30, "Governing" magazine and the Maxwell School of Syracuse University released their annual report, "Grading the States: A Management Report Card." The report's authors placed Nevada's state government in the lower ranks of the 50 states (in fact, only Alabama fared worse), with an overall grade of "C".
After conducting more than 1,000 interviews over the past several months—an average of 20 per state—with budget officers, personnel managers, auditors, and academics both in and out of government, the report's authors graded the states in the categories of financial management, capital management, human resources, information technology and "managing for results."
Nevada is doing "particularly well" in cost accounting and purchasing, the authors found. "The state has increased its pool of vendors through online registration and is leveraging its buying power through alliances with other states."
If we're getting the job done for less while encouraging free-market competition for state contracts, all Nevadans can echo that "Well done."
Nevada did best in the category of capital management, where the researchers found that because of the ongoing local building boom, "Contractors are coming here from Utah, Montana and California to compete for jobs. That's helped keep the state's building expenses competitive and work schedules on track."
The researchers had less kind words for the state's handling of information technology, finding that "The state's programming group currently supports 17 (computer) languages, with the result being fragmentation, excess capacity, and reduced economies of scale."
Ouch. And the authors didn't even single out the state Motor Vehicle Department's "Genesis" system, which has easily brewed up more consumer frustration than has been seen around these parts in ages, generating hours-long lines for no better reason than because the DMV wanted to put in place a computer system which will eventually allow it to take every driver's fingerprints and "digitize" them onto drivers licenses so they can be read out in a policeman's squad car—a level of tracking for private citizens which would have been the envy of Himmler's Gestapo.
The study's authors rated Nevada weakest on "human resources," awarding the Silver State a miserable "D-plus" and commenting "Nevada's job-classification system worked well 25 years ago, when the work force was about 3,000. Now, there are 17,000 employees and the process needs rehabilitation, but a recent reform proposal was axed because of revenue shortfalls."
But here is where the study's authors begin to demonstrate a bias of which they are probably not even fully aware—a vision of government that might well be characterized as "of the bureaucrats, by the bureaucrats, and for the bureaucrats."
"The state's merit system rules and regulations slow things down, as does the need to get budget approval to fill positions," the study's authors complain.
Well, of course mid-level bureaucrats would love to be able to hire people as fast as they walk in the door, without bothering to get that pesky "budget approval." But has it never occurred to the authors that speed and efficiency may not be the only goals of the taxpayers who fund such operations—that merit systems may encourage hard work and creativity, and that "slowing down" the growth of government agencies may actually be seen as a desirable end?
Given how hard it is to downsize a bureaucracy after it's bloated, who but a fellow bureaucrat could object to such a "slowdown"?
The annual study's analysis and criticisms are as welcome as are its occasional "pats on the back." But the problem with such studies is that they tend to be purely procedural—the authors never examine whether the state should be doing all the things it's doing—only whether it's doing them efficiently.
Thus, such a study could well give some benighted backwater state high marks for "efficiently" locking up and feeding at low cost disproportionate numbers of its minority residents (for instance) ... without ever stopping to ask why all those folks are being shipped off to the work farms in the first place—whether this is truly in keeping with a state government's main justification for existence, which is to protect citizens' liberties—not take them away.
The study by "Governing" and the Maxwell School usefully points out areas where state government can be run more efficiently. But neither our legislators nor the voters should ever forget that we have a higher oversight duty than merely making sure "the trains run on time."
We must continually ask whether state government is protecting our liberties while otherwise leaving us unencumbered to pursue our lives as we see fit ... or whether its "efficiencies" may be subtly pointing it toward a very different goal, entirely.