“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.
Situations like this one make government look stupid. The solution, according to Howard, is sweeping changes, including laws that entail broad principles rather than specific details and give public officials discretion. On the whole, it’s a pretty depressing read -- real problems correctly described, but proposed solutions that seem like pie in the sky at best.
I finished the book on the plane to Lansing, Mich., for a Governing event and had dinner that evening with Billy Hattaway, a regional director for the Florida Department of Transportation, a 2014 Governing Public Official of the Year and leader of that state’s collaborative and successful efforts to reduce pedestrian and bicyclist deaths. Howard makes a compelling case that the system is so clogged with rules that it cannot work, and yet Hattaway and thousands of other public employees are making it work rather than waiting for some sort of sweeping change.
Another good case in point is Zachary Thompson, director of the Dallas County Health and Human Services Department, who found himself in the middle of the Ebola crisis last year when a man who had traveled from Liberia to Dallas died of the disease after having been treated and released by a local hospital. At the time there was widespread confusion about federal guidelines, the role of emergency responders and medical privacy laws. Thompson was successful in working with state legislators, and this June Gov. Greg Abbott signed legislation authorizing local health officials to use their discretion to determine when to disclose the suspected presence of a communicable disease to first responders. Howard is right that the growing thicket of rules creates a system of governance in which it is increasingly difficult to perform effectively, but he is wrong in saying that as a result nothing works. Many public officials are showing that positive outcomes are not just feasible, but that they actually occur. That’s not depressing -- it’s inspiring.