Blog — Op-Ed
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 ›
In an April 6th editorial, the Las Vegas Review-Journal endorses Philip Howard’s April 2nd Wall Street Journal essay “The Crippling Hold of Old Law”:
It’s tres chic these days to lament Washington partisanship along with the ensuing gridlock and congressional inertia. But such hand-wringing ignores the nation’s robust bureaucratic apparatus and the energetic regulatory state it administers.
In fact, writes Philip K. Howard in an April 2 commentary for The Wall Street Journal, “The buildup of federal law since World War II has been massive – about 15 fold.” And that, he posits, shackles American competitiveness, undermines infrastructure development and stifles entrepreneurialism. “Bad laws trap daily decisions in legal concrete and are largely responsible for the U.S. government’s clunky ineptitude.”
Mr. Howard, an attorney who came to prominence as author of the 1994 book “The Death of Common Sense,” which addressed the pitfalls of administrative and legal tyranny, makes a compelling case that many of the nation’s statutes are outdated or counterproductive and should be reconsidered. …
[P]erhaps the country – currently in the throes of a tumultuous election campaign dominated by voters fed up with broken government – now nears the point where the reality of not acting overwhelms the political inclination to avoid hard choices.
Click here to read the full editorial, “Beltway Sclerosis.”
Click here to read the “The Crippling Hold of Old Law.”Comment ›
Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Philip Howard explains how bringing American law up-to-date would transform society. An excerpt:
What’s broken is American law—a man-made mountain of outdated statutes and regulations. Bad laws trap daily decisions in legal concrete and are largely responsible for the U.S. government’s clunky ineptitude.
The villain here is Congress—a lazy institution that postures instead of performing its constitutional job to make sure that our laws actually work. All laws have unintended negative consequences, but Congress accepts old programs as if they were immortal. The buildup of federal law since World War II has been massive—about 15-fold. The failure of Congress to adapt old laws to new realities predictably causes public programs to fail in significant ways.
You can read the entire essay here.
A campaign is needed to channel voter anger towards a real solution—clearing out dense bureaucracy so teachers, doctors, entrepreneurs can focus on succeeding, and decrepit infrastructure rebuilt. Let us know if you’d like to help: email@example.com.Comment ›
Writing in Democracy, the Progressive Policy Institute’s Will Marshall lays out four reforms to improve US infrastructure policy. The section on “speed[ing] regulatory review of public works projects” draws from Common Good’s “Two Years, Not Ten Years” report. An excerpt:
Lengthy approvals expose Americans to the safety hazards of unsafe bridges and roads, as well as leaks and flooding from ancient pipes and obsolete wastewater systems. Ironically, protracted environmental reviews harm the environment by slowing down the replacement of technologically primitive and inefficient infrastructure. 'Transmission lines in America waste 6 percent of the electricity they transmit—the equivalent of 200 average-size coal-burning power plants,' says Philip Howard in a Common Good report.
Why is infrastructure so entangled in red tape? A major problem is multiple and overlapping jurisdictions, as projects must get permits from a welter of agencies at different layers of government. In addition, environmental reviews in this country routinely get mired in litigation. And public hearings and meetings grind on endlessly as regulators attempt to hear from and accommodate every conceivable interest or 'stakeholder' that might be affected by a project.
In a well-functioning democracy, however, not every interested party can be or should be mollified; at some point the will of the majority should prevail. As the report notes:
Input from stakeholders and the public usually improves a project. But striving for consensus is futile, causes delays, and skews decisions toward the squeaky wheel instead of the public good. New infrastructure is unavoidably controversial. There is always an impact, and always a group that is affected more than others.
Crucially, Howard contends, there’s a vacuum of political authority at the top. In our balkanized bureaucracies, no agency or official has the power to settle disagreements among agencies, telescope the regulatory gauntlet or otherwise make the ultimate decision to move projects forward.
Marshall goes on to summarize the report’s proposed solutions. Click here to read his complete essay (“A New Kind of Public Works”).Comment ›
The Oklahoman editorial board writes today in support of Common Good Chair Philip Howard’s recent infrastructure proposal in The Atlantic. An excerpt from the editorial:
An attorney by trade, Philip K. Howard has made a career of trying to overhaul government in order to make it more responsive and useful. An indication that he doesn't play favorites: Howard frequently calls to reduce the number of laws on the books. Indeed the title of one of his many books is 'Life Without Lawyers: Liberating Americans from Too Much Law.'
It isn't the law so much as federal red tape that's the object of Howard's ire presently, and that of the reform organization he heads, Common Good (www.commongood.org). He's calling for reducing the mountain of bureaucracy that gets in the way of upgrading the country's infrastructure — roads, bridges and power grids — with a proposal that would require cooperation from both sides of the political aisle.
Howard's idea: Conservatives agree to raise taxes to help pay for modernized infrastructure, in return for liberals agreeing to lighten up on the regulatory end. Such a deal would “cut critical infrastructure costs in half, enhance America's environmental footprint, and boost the economy,” Howard wrote in The Atlantic.
In the January/February 2016 issue of Public Administration Review, Common Good Chair Philip Howard shows how modern government has failed—and argues that the only solution is to restore human responsibility as government’s operating mechanism. An excerpt from “Put Humans in Charge”:
Fairness, balance, trade-offs, and practical solutions always require judgment in context. Management theorist Chester Barnard suggested that ‘at least nine-tenths of all organization activity’ must be figured out by people who actually execute the task. ‘The guy standing there looking at the hole in the ground,’ former Georgia Commissioner Joe Tanner observed, ‘is best able to tell if there's a problem and how to fill it up.’
Real people, not rules, make things happen. This is as true in public administration as it is in every other human endeavor. Rules are vital to set a framework for human responsibility, and to provide mechanisms of accountability. But rules should provide a framework, not a substitute, for official responsibility.
Building a system of public administration grounded in official responsibility is not that hard. Indeed, it would be much simpler than today's complex system of regulatory micromanagement.
Click here to read the full essay.Comment ›
Writing for the Atlantic, Philip Howard proposes a deal between Democrats and Republicans that would improve America’s infrastructure in a streamlined fashion. In short, the bargain calls for more funding for less process. Howard explains:
There’s a way to break the logjam caused by a lack of needed funding and an overabundance of process. Conservatives concerned about wasteful government should agree to raise taxes to fund infrastructure if liberals agree to abandon the bureaucratic tangle that causes the waste. This deal will cut critical infrastructure costs in half, enhance America’s environmental footprint, and boost the economy.
Adequate funding will get America moving with safe and efficient infrastructure. And abandoning years of process need not undermine environmental goals or public transparency. The key, as in Germany and Canada, is to allocate authority to make needed decisions within a set time frame. Public input is vital, but it can be accomplished in months. Plus, input is more effective at the beginning of the process, as adjustments can be made before any plan is set in the legal concrete of multi-thousand-page environmental-review statements.
UPDATE: Click here to watch Philip’s January 3rd appearance on MSNBC to discuss his proposal.Comment ›
The new issue of the Ripon Forum, a journal for Republican leadership in Congress and beyond, focuses on a core Common Good theme—the need to fix old laws—and includes a lead essay by Common Good Chair Philip Howard. Removing or fixing obsolete programs (not just stopping new regulation) is vital to an effective government as well as a vigorous economy.Comment ›