Blog — Op-Ed
Here's Philip Howard's lead op-ed in the Washington Post on what's needed to finally tame the red tape monster.
Click the picture below to watch an animated video Common Good created to accompany Howard’s op-ed:Comment ›
UPDATE: Howard’s essay was excerpted by the Weekly Standard—read it here.
Writing for American Interest, Common Good Chair Philip Howard argues that, in the wake of the 2016 election, there’s an historic opportunity to reimagine government. “Change is overdue,” he writes “But it’s not the change advocated by either party. The change needed, to liberate American citizens and to fix American government, is to return to our founding philosophy: to honor humans by creating a framework that empowers them to take initiative, act on their beliefs, and make a difference.”
Click here to access the essay as a PDF.
If you agree, it will make a difference if you encourage others to read it. This is a critical time, and the future direction of government is uncertain.Comment ›
The cover story of this week’s Fortune magazine—“The Red Tape Conundrum” by Brian O'Keefe—highlights the work of Philip Howard and Common Good. The article’s sub-heading reflects the substantive connection to Common Good: How the wrong kind of regulation is strangling business—and what to do about it.
“It may well be the biggest bogeyman in business—bigger, perhaps, than even taxes: We’re talking, of course, about red tape,” the article begins. “The idea that burdensome and overly complicated government regulation is strangling growth is almost as old as commerce itself. But right now the hue and cry from the business community is louder than at just about any time in recent memory… In a recent survey by Deloitte, North American chief financial officers named new, burdensome regulation as the No. 2 threat to their business, behind only the possibility of a recession.”
The article then explores key questions: How can we be sure that our regulatory framework promotes innovation and fosters growth while at the same time protecting workers and consumers? Can we fix the current system or do we need to start over? How much is business at fault for the very excesses that companies themselves bemoan? And, finally, is there anything anybody can do to stop it?
“The rulemaking machinery—just like the law-making system—is geared toward pushing out new regulations, not removing them,” continues the article. “‘I kind of think of the regulatory issue as people basically saying in their own varying ways, Who’s in charge here?’ says (Michael) Mandel (chief economic strategist at the Progressive Policy Institute).”
“Philip K. Howard has spent more than two decades waging a campaign against red tape,” the article continues. “… he has written four books assailing over-legalization and founded a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization called Common Good to advocate reform—enlisting in his projects retired politicians from both the left and the right, including former senators Bill Bradley and Alan Simpson and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels… Howard’s belief is that our laws have gotten too precise for such a complex world and that our attempts to dictate every aspect of human behavior through rulemaking are only bogging us down. The system, he argues, is unadaptable. Similar to Mandel, Howard believes that too many different authorities means that nobody is in charge… In Howard’s mind, it’s time to go to a clean sheet of paper and rethink our entire approach… ‘You can’t reform this system,’ says Howard. ‘You have to rewrite it. That’s the lesson of history.’”
“(Matt) Harris (managing director at Bain Capital Ventures) echoes Philip K. Howard in suggesting that we may need a more radical approach. The best way to respond to our increasingly complex world is to make our rules simpler, he suggests, not more detailed. Regulations are now written in an attempt to legislate every imaginable action by individuals on every imaginable subject—an impossible task. ‘I think the whole thing needs to be rethought and boiled back to more of a principles-based set of detailed prescriptions on how everything can work,’ says Harris.”
From beginning to end, the cover story reverberates with Common Good’s philosophy about and solutions to this critical issue and underscores the necessity of our new campaign, joined by Sen. Bradley and Gov. Daniels among others, to overhaul government.
Click here to read the full Fortune piece.Comment ›
In the latest edition of “The Weekly Stupid”—the newsletter of the “Who’s in Charge Around Here?” campaign—a new animated video from Common Good examines an overlooked reason why Washington doesn’t work: it’s toxic culture.
Click on the image below to watch the video:
The culture of a place determines how it works. Whether people in a place take responsibility, feel free to innovate, speak truth to power, pitch in, help others grow, or do a thousand other things that help a group thrive, is usually fostered by its culture. Conversely, a culture can also lead people to be self-protective, short-sighted, quick to assign blame, and disinterested in joint purpose—sounds like Washington, right?
Here's a radical idea: Start moving agencies out of D.C. It wouldn’t matter where, as long as new people were in charge. Most Americans go to work expecting to make things work. They take responsibility—for results. Americans are willing to make hard choices, because that’s their job. In contrast, Washington avoids responsibility like the plague. It lacks the will to govern. That’s why, one way or the other, we believe Washington needs to be replaced.
For more discussion on the poisonous culture of Washington, check out Philip Howard's essay over at The Daily Beast.
Click here to sign up for future editions of "The Weekly Stupid." To learn more about the “Who’s in Charge Around Here?” campaign, visit Take-Charge.org. You can also follow it on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram: #TakeCharge.Comment ›
Responding to a recent article in the New York Times on Hillary Clinton’s and Donald Trump’s agreement to increase infrastructure spending, Philip Howard penned a letter to the editor arguing that the reason we can’t rebuild America’s infrastructure is not a matter of financing, but of red tape:
To the Editor:
“Candidates Agree on One Thing: Infrastructure” (front page, Sept. 19) notes a rare point of agreement between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump: to spend at least $250 billion fixing America’s decrepit infrastructure.
The main hurdle is not financing, however, but red tape. Congress funded an $800 billion stimulus plan in 2009, and five years later only $30 billion had been spent on transportation infrastructure. As President Obama put it, “There’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects.”
Delays of a decade or longer are common. Last year, Common Good published a report, “Two Years, Not Ten Years,” that found that decade-long review and permitting procedures more than double the effective cost of new infrastructure projects.
What the candidates need to address is how to create clear lines of authority to cut through red tape. Until then, vital projects will languish on the drawing boards.
PHILIP K. HOWARD
Chairman, Common Good
Click here to see the letter.
To learn more about the state of America’s infrastructure, and Common Good’s proposed solutions to streamline permitting, visit the Infrastructure & Environment page of our “Who’s in Charge Around Here?” campaign site.
You can also join former Sen. Bill Bradley (D-NJ), Gov. Tom Kean (R-NJ), and Sen. Al Simpson (R-WY) in supporting our “It's Time to Overhaul Washington” petition—available here on Change.org.Comment ›
Mrs. Clinton sees lots of trees, not the forest, and is viewed as the candidate of the status quo. Mr. Trump is running as an outsider and strong man, but will have neither the vision nor mandate to overhaul entrenched structures. Whoever wins, angry voters are likely to be even angrier four years from now.
Howard goes on to offer the needed prescription for change:
Common Good, the nonprofit of which I am chairman, has a clear, bipartisan plan for fixing broken government: Simplify regulation so that individual responsibility, not rote bureaucracy, is the organizing principle of government. Laws should set goals and guiding principles, with clear lines of authority. Simple frameworks will be sufficient, in most areas, to replace thousands of pages of micro-regulation.
No brilliant systems are required—just the ability to be practical. This overhaul is not partisan. Former Sens. Bill Bradley of New Jersey and Alan Simpson of Wyoming, former Govs. Mitch Daniels (Indiana) and Tom Kean (New Jersey) have joined the Common Good movement.
How do we determine which regulations and laws are good or bad? The litmus test is results: What’s good is what works. Achieving practicality requires creating structures that are adaptable and allow trial and error. The current system is far too rigid—cast-iron regulatory manacles can’t adapt quickly, waste taxpayer money and impose a deadweight on freedom.
Click here to read Howard’s full essay.
Lastly, you can join former Sen. Bill Bradley (D-NJ), Gov. Tom Kean (R-NJ), and Sen. Al Simpson (R-WY) in supporting our petition—available here on Change.org.Comment ›
Philip Howard in the Daily Beast: The Cure to Irresponsible Public Discourse Is to Restore Authority
Writing in the Daily Beast, and discussing New York Times Company CEO Mark Thompson’s new book, Common Good Chair Philip Howard explains how the breakdown of authority has turned public discourse into a shouting match:
Public discourse is a cacophony because the words don’t matter. There’s no decision-maker to persuade or to hold you accountable. The disappearance of authority was no accident. After the 1960s, we reorganized government to avoid fallible human judgment by replacing human authority with thick rulebooks. That’s why government is a tangle of red tape where no one can do much of anything. Critical infrastructure projects languish on drawing boards because no official has authority to give a permit. Schools are chaotic because teachers must prove in a due process hearing that Johnny threw the punch. In government without human authority, irresponsible actions have few consequences, and irresponsible words have no consequences. Yell, hiss, lie… whatever.
The solution, Howard concludes, is to empower people, and government officials in particular, to ask and act upon this question: “What’s the right thing to do here?”
Click here to read Howard’s full essay—and click here to read more about his proposed solution on the “Who’s in Charge Around Here?” campaign site. You can sign up for the campaign at Take-Charge.org. You can also follow it on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram: #TakeCharge.Comment ›
Writing in the Huffington Post this week, former Senator Bill Bradley and Common Good Chair Philip Howard argue that what’s missing from the current campaign season is a coherent plan to fix Washington:
Americans want change. But without a clear mandate a fresh face in the White House won’t have a chance against entrenched bureaucracy and special interests. It wasn’t long ago that we elected the freshest candidate in memory, running with the slogan ‘Change we can believe in.’ Washington just plowed ahead in the same direction.
Voter anger is too unfocused to drive change. It’s like punching a pillow. Fix Broken Government! OK, what does that mean? Let’s fill Congress with better people—say, clones of Washington, Hamilton, Lincoln, and Howard Baker. What’s our vision of what they would do?
Senator Bradley and Howard go on to discuss the campaign launched this week—titled “Who’s in Charge Around Here?,” and of which they’re co-chairs—to fill this void:
Our vision for fixing broken government is simple: Clean out the bureaucratic jungle so everyone—regulators and regulated alike—can use common sense. From the schoolhouse to the White House, replace mindless bureaucracy with human responsibility and accountability.
Reforming specific programs is not enough. Washington needs a change in its operating philosophy. Simplify regulation so people can understand what’s required. Leave room for people to roll up their sleeves and make sense of things. People must be free to ask in each situation: What’s the right thing to do here?
Read the full essay here.
And click the image below to watch the campaign’s first video, “Put Humans in Charge”:Comment ›
After months of standoff with the de Blasio administration, the recent decision by Success Academy Charter Schools to close its free, full-day pre-K programs has created a stir in the education community. The Success Academy controversy dates back to its refusal to enter into contracts mandated by the New York City Department of Education (DOE) that would govern the operations of its pre-K programs. On appeal to the state government, Success Academy’s lawyers claimed that the DOE had exceeded its authority in conditioning the payment of funds on the execution of an “overly onerous” and “bureaucratic” 241-page contract. Even if it was within the DOE’s authority, they further argued, the contract was inconsistent with New York’s Education Law. In February, the state education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, ruled for the DOE.
As these things so often do, the latest development in this protracted affair has devolved into familiar, and emotional, refrains about the successes or failures of the New York-based charter school network. Others have lamented the fact that many parents will now have to scramble to find alternative pre-K schools, many of which may not be able to match the quality of what Success Academy can offer. However, the significance of Success Academy’s decision to cancel its pre-K classes does not end with the approximately 100 students who would have attended them in the upcoming school year. What is of much greater consequence to all students is the underlying philosophical debate about school regulation.
In fact, the pre-K controversy is just another chapter in the ongoing discourse about the appropriate role of government in education. On mandating the execution of the contract, Mayor de Blasio has stated, "Every other charter school organization we've worked with has signed a contract, all the religious schools have signed a contract because they all understand it is a commitment to uphold the standards we've put forth on behalf of the people. We have an obligation as the government to set those standards." In a scathing article aimed at the New York City mayor, Campbell Brown, former CNN anchor and a member of the Success Academy board, responded: "[I]t appears that the mayor values bureaucratic conformity and control more than our ability to help students perform remarkably across grades and schools."
If there is unmistakable anger among those in support of Success Academy, there is also a hint of pride on the part of the de Blasio administration in having upheld its standards for pre-K programs. It’s understandable. In fact, the administration’s stance reflects a longstanding belief that the law must prescribe how schools operate in order to ensure a certain level of quality. This is at the core of education reform in the United States through the latest iteration of federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.
While well-intentioned, such reform doesn’t work. In his book “Life Without Lawyers,” Common Good Chair Philip Howard writes:
All these reforms have been based on an unspoken assumption: that better organization is the key to fixing whatever ails schools. The theory is that by imposing more organizational requirements—better teacher credentials, more legal rights, detailed curricula, the pressure of tests—schools will get better. That’s the theory. The effect, however, is to remove the freedom needed to succeed at any aspect of teachers’ responsibilities—how they teach, how they relate to students, and how they coordinate their goals with administrators.
Such requirements also leave teachers frustrated and unhappy. Lack of classroom autonomy and little influence over school decisionmaking are consistently cited as some of the major reasons for teacher job dissatisfaction.
Teaching is a distinctly human exercise. Just think about your favorite teacher from childhood. She didn’t take cues from a manual to walk through the elements of the Pythagorean Theorem or to lead a lively discussion on the hubris of Oedipus. He did not need zero tolerance rules to earn the respect and attention of his students. Such teachers simply had a knack for engaging the classroom with their own unique style, and any formal requirements would have only gotten in the way.
As professionals, teachers must be empowered to exercise their judgment because they cannot be successful without it. In their interactions with students, teachers must constantly make choices throughout the school day, and no rule created in advance can account for the nuances of each and every situation. Therefore, a necessary measuring stick for any school regulation, whatever the source, is to ask whether it allows teachers to rely on their best instincts.
So, how does the DOE’s contract measure up? As an initial matter, one is left to wonder why a contract governing a pre-K program should be 241 pages long. Any time you have too many rules, people tend not to follow them, often because they simply cannot remember them all. If one ventures to keep track of, and comply with, all the rules, it requires administrative cost and takes time away from other things, like, say, instruction time.
The terms of the contract are absurdly specific. For example, the contract requires the school to provide students with access to blocks and dramatic play materials for "at least 2 hours and seven minutes per day" and to limit daily computer use to 15 minutes. What if completing an interactive online activity required a child to spend 20 minutes on the computer? What if holding other events like field trips—which are also limited by the contract, by the way—meant students could only spend exactly two hours playing with blocks? Short of breaching the contract, there is no sensible answer.
However, for Success Academy, it was a losing battle from the start. In her decision, Ms. Elia noted that the Education Law requires all participating pre-K programs to demonstrate quality in various areas, including curriculum and learning environment. She ruled that the DOE’s contract terms could be seen as reasonable ways to carry out the law’s requirements. Just last week, a New York state judge also rejected Success Academy’s petition in state supreme court. As long as we believe the government should impose organizational requirements in order to improve our schools, the result will usually be the same: less freedom for teachers on the ground.
It’s time for a philosophical shift. This is not to suggest that the law should not hold schools to high standards. Ineffective teachers should be held accountable. If Success Academy’s pre-K programs fail to prepare children for kindergarten, the DOE should be allowed to take reasonable action. However, we cannot allow the fear of a few bad actors to prevent the vast majority of good teachers from using their best instincts to teach their students. Teachers must be free to decide how best to meet the standards we demand from them. Until then, true education reform may only be a pipe dream.
David Choi is a senior attorney with Common Good.Comment ›
Last week, former US Treasury Secretary and Harvard University President Larry Summers wrote two pieces tying America’s inability to fix our decrepit infrastructure to the larger problems of broken government – particularly government officials’ inability to take charge to achieve even the smallest of accomplishments.
In the first piece for the Boston Globe, Mr. Summers (along with Harvard student Rachel Lipson) outlines the delays and cost overruns in rehabilitating Boston’s Anderson Memorial Bridge. “Rehabilitation of the 232-foot bridge began in 2012, at an estimated cost of about $20 million,” he writes. “[F]our years later, there is no end date in sight and the cost of the project is mushrooming, to $26.5 million at last count.” The project, he argues, exposes America’s national problems with fixing infrastructure:
How, we ask, could our society have regressed to the point where a bridge that could be built in less than a year one century ago takes five times as long to repair today? Here are some of the reasons that have contributed to the delay:
In order to adhere to strict historical requirements overseen by the Massachusetts Historical Commission, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation had to order special bricks, cast by a company in Maine, to meet special size and appearance specifications from the bridge’s inception in 1912.
At the same time, extensive permitting and redesigns haven’t helped. For instance, once construction had already started on the bridge, the contractor, Barletta Heavy Division, discovered that an existing water main would need to be relocated. With the subsequent change order and additional Massachusetts Water Resources Authority permitting processes, an additional 357 days were tacked on to the original contract completion date.
Infrastructure delays, he concludes, are the result of bureaucracy and the lack of leadership from those supposedly in charge. But he also blames it on the American people for not demanding accountability – “a failure that may in part reflect a lowering of expectations as trust in government declines.”
Mr. Summers builds on the government trust argument in his second piece for the Washington Post. He writes, still using the example of the Anderson Memorial Bridge:
Investigating the reasons behind the bridge blunders have helped to illuminate an aspect of American sclerosis – a gaggle of regulators and veto players, each with the power to block or to delay, and each with their own parochial concerns. All the actors – the historical commission, the contractor, the environmental agencies, the advocacy groups, the state transportation department – are reasonable in their own terms, but the final result is wildly unreasonable.
At one level this explains why, despite the overwhelming case for infrastructure investment, there is so much resistance from those who think it will be carried out ineptly. The right response is to advocate for reforms in procurement policies, regulatory policies and government procedures to make the investment process more efficient and effective. This is all clear enough.
At another level, though, our story may illustrate phenomena that go way beyond infrastructure. I'm a progressive, but it seems plausible to wonder if government can build a nation abroad, fight social decay, run schools, mandate the design of cars, run health insurance exchanges, or set proper sexual harassment policies on college campuses, if it can't even fix a 232-foot bridge competently. Waiting in traffic over the Anderson Bridge, I've empathized with the two-thirds of Americans who distrust government.
People, he argues, won’t trust government to do the big things if they can’t execute the little things properly. This upcoming election, he concludes, ought to be about how we can trade cynicism for progress: “More than questions of personality or even those of high policy, the question of how to escape this trap should be a central issue in this election year.”
Common Good believes the answer is to free officials – and Americans at large – from the encumbrances of law that prevent them from taking action. (We are in particular agreement on his proposed solutions to expedite the infrastructure approval process.) In the coming weeks we will be launching a campaign to implement this vision. Please check back on this space.
Read Mr. Summers’ Boston Globe op-ed (“A Lesson on Infrastructure from the Anderson Bridge Fiasco”) here.
Read his Washington Post piece (“Why Americans Don’t Trust Government”) here.
Finally, writing in the Washington Examiner, Michael Barone ties Mr. Summers’ recent arguments to the writings of Common Good Chair Philip K. Howard. You can read that piece here.Comment ›