John O'Leary is a former GOVERNING contributor. He is co-author of "If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government."E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Colleague and BFC contributor Stephen Goldsmith has a fascinating column in the Wall Street Journal. Goldsmith argues that while the original Progressives of the early 20th century were motivated by a concern for the little guy, the legacy rules of the Progressive Era are crippling government operations.
Goldsmith contends that "the very rules that once enhanced accountability, transparency and efficiency now stifle the creativity of public-sector workers and reduce the ability of public investments to create opportunities for citizens -- outcomes precisely the opposite of those intended by Progressive Era reformers."
The Progressive Era introduced a set of rules reforms, including Civil Service testing and procurement reforms, that were intended to professionalize public service and reduce corruption. At the time, these rules were a big improvement over the cronyism of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall. Today, however, it is the politically privileged who are using the rules to protect their well-feathered nests. Writes Goldsmith:
"[I]n many cases special interests are working in the bureaucracy, using Progressive Era rules to protect the status quo and themselves. Recent efforts to trim approximately 150 laborers, carpenters and electricians from city hospitals, for example, were halted by a lawsuit brought by the unions. In a city facing a multibillion-dollar deficit, every nonessential dollar spent is a dollar less available for hospital care -- or shelter for the homeless, or police for troubled neighborhoods. In a word, these special-interest interventions ultimately lead to socially regressive results.
For cities to survive, we need a post-progressive approach in which the efficient creation of the common good is the shared goal of labor, management and citizens alike."
Currently serving as Deputy Mayor of New York City, Goldsmith has been waging an effort to root out wasteful rules and red tape. The "Simplicity" initiative recently launched by Mayor Bloomberg is an attempt to embrace innovation and customer service. Right now, however, New York City is deeply embedded in the Progressive Era thinking of 100 years ago. Stay tuned.
Goldsmith's column can be found here.