The Fantasy of the Quick Fix

It doesn't help win elections, but confronting the big public challenges requires a sustained effort over many years.
September 28, 2016
By Elizabeth K. Kellar  |  Contributor
Senior Fellow with the Center for State and Local Government Excellence and director of public policy for the International City/County Management Association

Americans are impatient. When we see a problem, we want it fixed yesterday. That helps explain why public leaders are reluctant to tackle the gnarly problems our society faces: It is difficult to show results in time for the next election.

That's why we have such a backlog of critical infrastructure projects, why we struggle to improve police-community relations, and why we put off addressing our public pension and health care challenges. To make significant progress, all of these issues require a sustained effort over many years.

When trust breaks down between the police and the community, for example, there is no quick fix. Relationships take time and effort to heal. Training can help, but even more important is a commitment from the police to spend time getting to know the people in the communities they serve. Many officers do go above and beyond their job requirements, doing admirable things like volunteering in police athletic/activities programs with the young people in the neighborhood. That kind of sustained engagement makes a difference.

It's not just about the police. Everyone in a local government can help build better relationships with neighborhoods, from the elected officials and top management to the public works staffers who may notice a problem that needs attention. Local government leaders have an especially important role to play in advocating this strategy and in seeking feedback from residents by using 311 systems and social-media platforms to encourage residents to report small problems before they become major issues.

Another longer-term management strategy is to address workforce practices that get in the way of good community relationships. Contract negotiations with police should encourage officers to stay in their assignments for at least two years rather than offering an option to rotate out of a neighborhood after just one year.

Politically, taking the long view is not easy, but it is the only way that we can make progress on issues that require a sustained effort. Take infrastructure, the essential backbone of our economy. How can it be that a country like the United States could have developed such a backlog of critical infrastructure needs? One reason is that the federal fuel taxes that provide the revenue for the Highway Trust Fund have not increased since 1993. Still, there are encouraging signs that some leaders are starting to address the funding challenge -- taking the first steps down what will be a long road. More than two dozen states have raised their own fuel taxes to generate needed revenues.

We are a nation of innovators, and there are a number of intriguing ideas to boost our nation's infrastructure investments. Public-private partnerships, which shift more of the responsibility to the private sector for such projects as toll roads, bridges, ports and airports, are becoming more widespread. While the public sector retains ownership, the private sector assumes more of the cost and the risks of such projects in return for a revenue stream.

These approaches are welcome, but state and local officials who are realists see them as supplementing their core-infrastructure financing tools, not replacing them. Their single most important tool to finance and improve schools, streets, highways, hospitals, bridges, water and sewer systems, airports, and other public works is the same as ever: the tax-exempt municipal bond. From 2003 to 2014, states and local governments invested $3.5 trillion in infrastructure through these long-term bonds, while the federal government provided $1.46 trillion.

Asking the voters to approve a 30-year bond to build a road or replace a bridge is about as far from a quick fix as you can get. And taking a disciplined, decades-long effort to address our nation's long-term needs won't be a popular theme in this fall's campaign ads.

But when far-sighted leaders take the time to explain the need, more often than not people choose to invest in the future. Americans may be impatient, but most of them understand that when the problem is a difficult one, the quick fix is a fantasy.