Recently I wrote about how the legislature could reform its processes to make participation, both for legislators and citizens, more palatable for voters and electeds. The idea was to use 20th Century governmental models to reform the 18th Century legislative model, one example being to meet on weekends, not in career-killing long sessions.
Here I want to address deeper structural defects in our political system. Other democracies have identified and designed their governments to avoid these structural paralyses, so reform is possible.
Recently I attended a lunch with a knowledgeable group of local policy wonks. An ex-military and longtime federal leader observed that he doubted half of the room could identify their Member of Congress. Knowing the crowd, I discounted his observation, but I suspect fewer than half could identify the three people representing them in the state Legislature. Perhaps the group could name a few city or county councilmembers but certainly not all. Nor the directors on their school board. Nor their conservation, water, sewer, or noxious-weed-control district. (Go ahead, take the test yourself.)
For years I’ve posed a “gotcha question” in meetings, gatherings, and bars: “How many governments does King County have?” The answer, the last time I counted, was 135. There’s the federal government, the state, the county, 39 cities, 19 school districts, a port district, a library district, water districts, sewer districts, fire districts, park districts, Sound Transit, stadium districts, three airport districts (none of which contain SeaTac or King County International), a conservation district, a noxious weed, and a mosquito district –- and the list goes on.
Keep in mind that each of these districts has a tax base. In fact, most exist to capture a tax base authorized by the Legislature to fund the public services they provide. The districts also have governing boards, most of these unknowns elected in the November general elections and most compensated very modestly (at best). In King County, we have about 800 elected officials, and that’s not counting the scores of appointed officials on governing boards for several of these governments. For example, the King County Library District has a very robust tax base and a seven-member governing board appointed by the County Executive.
As citizens, confronted with government dysfunction, we often propose to “solve” the problem with a new elected official and yet another layer of bureaucracy. Concerns about the King County Sheriff’s performance led to making the appointed sheriff into an elected sheriff – a move that was recently and wisely reversed. Meanwhile, a concern with elections led to making the Director of Elections an elected position. We were fortunate the incumbent director was elected to the newly voted position, but what’s the plan to assure the next director has experience with administering elections?
Another problem is that once these obscure boards are created, it’s often difficult to find or replace members of governing boards. Often those elected to these governing bodies end up with life-time jobs with perquisites like travel, conventions, etc. – but rarely face competitive elections.
Then there is the problem of ballot-bloat. Our long, exhaustive, and exhausting election ballots, with votes trailing off as voters work toward down ballot races, contrasts with British Columbia. My follow-up gotcha question: “How many candidates do you vote for in a Canadian national election?” The answer is one. In a Canadian national election, each voter chooses one candidate to represent the riding (electoral district) they live in. There will be multiple candidates and often three or more parties, but citizens get to vote for just one.
The result is a much cleaner election process. Each of the parties has candidates and platforms. The expectation is that candidates support the platform, which articulate what each party sees as national and regional priorities. In America, the profusion of candidates, issues, and messages drowns out the clear choices.
I remember running for the state Legislature and trying to communicate what I thought about public priorities, only to be drowned out by national, statewide, regional, and ballot issues. This cacophony makes the average voter’s job daunting. And our tome-like voter pamphlets further demonstrate the challenge of knowledgeable voting.
We fondly think electing office holders is an effective method for holding governments accountable, but it isn’t. The number of elected officials we elect; the striking number of jurisdictions they govern; our inability to re-allocate public resources between the jurisdictions as conditions change (governing boards work very hard to protect their tax bases) – all these factors persuade me that it is pyrrhic accountability.
In the private sector, markets powerfully incentivize organizations to work together, integrating “value streams” to deliver products to customers. Working together makes for effective productive processes and products that meet customer needs. Failing to work together to deliver value sends an important market signal: in less revenue for all the groups making up the value stream.
When markets don’t work or don’t even exist, we create public institutions and governments to provide services to the community and pay for them with taxes. The presumably steady flow of tax dollars replaces the discipline of the market – no product, no payment. But the massive fragmentation and complexity of our public sector makes accountability extraordinarily difficult. These factors also thwart reforms adjusting to changes over time as well as collaboration. The result is government that is ineffective.
Consider our chronic homelessness emergency. Solving the homelessness crisis needs the direct effort of at least 60-75 of our 135 governments. Directly through general purpose governments and school districts. Indirectly through water and sewer districts and many of the other special-purpose districts that siphon off public resources and taxes. Our “10-year plans to end homelessness” turn into 10-year preludes to the next stab at a solution.
Many public officials and governments have stepped up to homelessness, but they’ve traditionally done so within their own jurisdictions, with their own zealously protected strategies. The result: lack of synergy across the region.
This need for a way to integrate the region’s approach to solving homelessness spawned the regional homeless authority as a single, regional government attempting to manage and integrate the region’s approaches to homelessness. Certainly that’s a positive step, but creating the 136th government looks a lot like a band aid not a solution. A durable and effective solution would entail rethinking the way we deliver public services and creating true accountability for what is delivered and finding out whether desired, measurable outcomes are achieved.
Let’s not keep doing the same failing strategy for more generations. Bring sanity and pruning shears to the public sector.