Better Government

The Real Purpose of Government

Government in a democracy is essentially a conservative institution. It is responsible for creating and sustaining markets, enforcing contracts, protecting private property, and producing systems of education and infrastructure that allow commerce to function efficiently.

The current conventional wisdom that liberals are pro-government and conservatives are anti- is frequently traced to President Ronald Reagan’s often-invoked notion that government is the problem, not the solution. But when you read Reagan’s first inaugural address, delivered in 1981 in the middle of a crushing recession, what he actually said was this: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” This was not a blanket condemnation of government, but a reaction to a specific situation in which the federal government seemed particularly ineffective. Reagan went on to say that “it’s not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work.” READ MORE

People Who Prove Broken Government Can Work

“Nothing today is politically feasible. Nothing,” writes Philip K. Howard in The Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government. While his book veers into occasional hyperbole, its overall premise is sound: The proliferation of laws and regulations that attempt to spell out precisely what public officials must do in every conceivable situation makes it increasingly difficult for them to get anything done and coincidentally weakens their moral authority.

The book includes lots of stories like this one: During a storm in February 2011, a tree fell into a creek in Franklin Township, N.J., and caused flooding. The town was about to send a tractor to pull the tree out of the water when it learned this was a “class C-1 creek” and that formal approvals were required before any natural condition could be altered. The town had to spend 12 days and $12,000 to get a permit to remove the tree. READ MORE

The Impact That Government Auditing Could Have (and Doesn't)

Performance auditing can be a powerful contributor to effective and accountable government. There is, however, a gap between the positive impact it could have and that which it is actually having.

In many jurisdictions, the work of the government audit office is largely irrelevant, having little or no influence on the decisions made by the government or the outcomes of those decisions. But two changes to the standards that govern the profession could make performance auditing more relevant. READ MORE

Problems Only Government Can Solve

“For almost forty years our economy has bred stagnant wages, long-term unemployment, huge disparities of wealth, and fewer escalators of social mobility.”

These are the opening words of social scientist Daniel Yankelovich’s book Wicked Problems, Workable Solutions: Lessons from a Public Life. They describe a set of facts that, in ways often unrecognized or unacknowledged, dominates almost every issue. READ MORE

Why the Fiscal Issue That Matters Most Isn't Pensions

At Governing’s Summit on the Cost of Government last September, I asked a group of city, county and state chief financial officers what they saw as the biggest challenge facing their governments. Every member of the group said it was public pensions. I have a great deal of respect for these individuals. They are dedicated public servants, and many of them are far more knowledgeable about state and local government finance than I am. But I think they’re wrong. I think the No. 1 challenge facing state and local governments is infrastructure, not pensions.

First, the dollar estimates for the infrastructure deficit are simply larger than those for pensions. Don Boyd and Peter Kiernan, in a January 2014 paper, pegged the underfunding of state and local government defined-benefit pension systems at $2 trillion to $3 trillion. That’s a lot of money for sure, but the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated the country’s infrastructure deficit at $3.6 trillion, and that was back in 2013. READ MORE