An Accidental Outcome

When officials act quickly to solve a problem, they may fail to look at the long-term effects -- and those can create new complications.
September 1, 2007 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

The sociologist Robert King Merton died about four years ago. We know he achieved success in a variety of ways. But his passing struck a particular chord with us. He made popular a concept that we have long found prevalent in the public sector: the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Merton indicated that there were five essential reasons for this generally self-explanatory phenomenon. Our favorite was the one he dubbed the "imperious immediacy of interest." In the world of state and local government, this describes many of the actions taken to deal with pressing problems of the day with actions that often ignore longer-term effects.

Consider, for example, the various 511 phone lines set up around the country to allow drivers to use voice-recognition technology to get real-time traffic information. This is a program the Federal Highway Administration pushed, with the idea that such information could help drivers avoid delays from bad weather or traffic accidents.

But think about it for a moment. Who's going to be using this service? People driving cars. And do you really want people driving cars to be distracted by calling 511? Lisa Lewis, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Partnership for Driving, voiced a concern not long ago that "in the course of calling to check traffic, drivers will crash and cause more traffic delays."

Similar examples abound. Laws that prohibit indoor smoking tend to increase the prevalence of litter as street-bound smokers crush burning butts beneath their feet and leave them there. School tests that focus on math and verbal abilities may do a good job at encouraging youngsters to become adept at long division and to speak more succinctly. But at the same time, policy makers can put such an emphasis on these skills that they drive out resources to fund art, music, physical education and other efforts that many educators consider worthwhile.

Then there was the legislation passed in Florida a number of years ago to give some homeowners property-tax breaks. Over time, that resulted in dramatic differences in the ways in which neighboring homes were taxed. This was predictable, to be sure. But it was distinctly unintended. The result has been a real mess as legislators attempted to fix the problem by cutting everybody's property taxes. As a result, the state's municipalities are left looking in the couch cushions for money to balance their budgets.

The Florida problems aren't unique in terms of the huge potential price tags that can attach themselves to unintended consequences. In the past decade or so, a number of states and cities decided to offer early-retirement programs in order to cut the workforce, ease the path to promotion for younger employees and bring down the average wage. Accordingly, a few years ago, Illinois offered an incentive package to encourage early retirement. Unfortunately, state officials underestimated the allure of their incentives. The number of workers who took advantage of the offer was twice what the state anticipated. Not only did Illinois wind up losing $2.2 billion on the deal but -- and here's the real killer -- it wound up with a bunch of holes in its workforce.

We'd like to offer up our own corollary to Merton's phrase: the Principle of Conflicting Intentions. It speaks to instances in which governments do two things at pretty much the same time that push in opposite directions. One example: About six years ago, South Carolina reduced the number of years required for retirement from 30 to 28. At about the same time, the legislature added an incentive program to encourage state retirees to come back for another five years.

Another example would be cities that put in place a better way to measure crime and at the same time panic about the uptick in crime -- resulting from better measurements.

We don't want to be seen as making fun of governments that are caught by surprise or have difficulties with mixed messages. Mayors and governors are no different from anyone else whose best-laid plans often go awry.

But we get frustrated when governments don't think things through thoroughly before taking action. Sometimes it's a matter of insufficient information or the result of time pressure. With a push to pass its budget on time, did anybody in New York State's legislature read the whole document from cover to cover?

The oft-repeated admonition to "measure twice, cut once" shouldn't be limited to tailors and carpenters.