Blog — News
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 ›
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 ›
UPDATE: Common Good’s video on the need to expedite approval of the Gateway Rail Tunnel Project has received significant media coverage, including from NJ.com and the Washington Post. The Washington Post’s Fredrick Kunkle interviewed Common Good’s Philip Howard about the reasoning behind the video, and the need to reform America’s infrastructure approval process:
‘We need to create a critical mass of public pressure to make sure that at the end of the meeting, someone says, “Okay, let’ s move forward and do this, instead of having another meeting. ”
Howard said that another reason for the delay is that the public works approval process has been hijacked—sometimes by opponents, and sometimes by proponents who fear being sued by opponents. Their battleground has become the environmental impact review or concerns that bulldozers will raze history.
‘Everyone’s gaming the system,’ Howard said. ‘The environmental review, in my opinion, is an extraordinarily important component of decision-making. But it was intended to take months, not a decade. It was intended to focus the important environmental issues, not overturning every pebble.’
You can read the full piece here.
ORIGINAL POST: Common Good today released a three-minute animated video highlighting the need to expedite approval of the proposed Gateway Rail Tunnel Project under the Hudson River. The video—“Transportation Armageddon”—was created for Common Good by Alex Marino, a former writer for “The Daily Show.” It incorporates his humor and perspective in discussing a crucial issue: the need to prevent unnecessary financial and environmental costs from delay of the Project. Click the image below to watch the video:
Download the press release on the video here.
Click here to read Common Good’s May 2016 report on the Gateway Project, “Billions for Red Tape.”Comment ›
The co-chairs of Common Good’s “Who’s in Charge Around Here?” campaign have appeared on TV and radio in the past few days to discuss the effort and, in particular, the need for it.
On Friday, campaign co-chair Philip Howard appeared on CNBC’s “Power Lunch,” arguing: “Americans are frustrated, but it’s like punching a pillow, because Washington is this giant hairball of accumulated regulations that prevent everybody, even the President, from [getting anything done].”
Click the image below to watch a five-minute clip of the interview.
On Monday, former Senator Bill Bradley, the other campaign co-chair, appeared with former Governor Tom Kean, a campaign endorser, on WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show.” “We have a lot of talk about the problems we face as a country, but there’s no coherent plan to fix Washington,” said Bradley. “And what we’re trying to do is lay out a plan to fix Washington ….”
Click the image below to listen to the 23-minute interview.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 ›
Common Good today launched a national bipartisan campaign—called “Who’s in Charge Around Here?”—to build support for basic overhaul of the federal government. The campaign, which has been endorsed by leaders from both political parties, will show how to remake government into simple frameworks that allow people to take charge again. Rules should lay out goals and general principles—like the 15-page Constitution—and not suffocate responsibility with thousand-page instruction manuals.
The campaign is co-chaired by former US Senator Bill Bradley (D-NJ) and Common Good Chair Philip Howard. Among those who have already endorsed the campaign are former Governors Mitch Daniels (R-IN) and Tom Kean (R-NJ), and former US Senator Alan Simpson (R-WY) who co-chaired the Simpson-Bowles Commission on government reform.
The campaign will use video and social media to drive a national conversation to return to Americans the freedom to let ingenuity and innovation thrive in their daily lives. The campaign’s first three-minute video, narrated by Stockard Channing, uses white-board animations to explain how government should work. Titled “Put Humans in Charge,” you can watch the video by clicking on the image below:
Americans know that common sense has taken a backseat to stupidity, but political debate has not drawn a clear link to suffocating legal structures. The campaign features “The Stupid List” showing how obsolete and over-prescriptive bureaucracy undermines infrastructure and the environment, schools, health care, jobs and the economy. The Stupid List is available here.
We would appreciate your feedback or suggestions—you can e-mail us at TakeCharge@commongood.org.Comment ›
In March, Inc. magazine organized a roundtable discussion with small business owners about the regulations that affect their businesses. Common Good’s Philip Howard moderated the conversation, which is summarized by Inc.'s Editor-at-Large Leigh Buchanan in their July/August issue.
One of the participants, who heads a winery, discussed a federal rule that limits where he can sell his product if it contains grapes from “‘noncontiguous’ states.” Inc. relates:
This rule exists, suggests Howard, to protect vested interests. But, he adds, 'it looks like [rules governing the wine industry] exist only because someone made them up that way 80 years ago.'
That could be said of tens of thousands of governmental rules that appear arbitrary, irrational, or outdated. Unfortunately, the list is only growing. Roughly 3,400 federal regulations were issued in 2015, 545 of which directly affect small business, according to the Competitive Enterprise Institute. The Office of Management and Budget reports that another 3,000 are on course for this year. Entrepreneurs are, or soon could be, grappling with new federal and state rules related to—among other things—overtime, sick leave, health care reporting, employee retirement plans, independent contractors, lead dust in commercial buildings, and website accessibility for the disabled. The most recent academic paper on the topic released by the Small Business Administration's Office of Public Advocacy—in 2010—reports that per-employee regulatory costs for small companies are 36 percent higher than those for large ones.
The problem is not regulation per se, the roundtable participants agreed—entrepreneurs “want to do the right thing for their employees, their customers, and the environment,” Inc. writes—but that the growing mass of—oftentimes obsolete, conflicting—regulations prevent growth with no accompanying benefit:
Every time your business is prevented from doing something or you choose not to do something because the government makes it difficult, there is an opportunity cost. According to the Paychex survey, concern over regulation had dissuaded 39 percent of respondents from entering a new market, 36 percent from introducing a new product, and 25 percent from starting a particular kind of business.
The Inc. article ends by offering five reform proposals to “build a smarter, less restrictive regulatory system”—these include: allowing new business “breathing room” in addressing minor regulations; treating “disrupters” differently than established industries; regulating by principles as opposed to precise specifics; cleaning out obsolete regulations; and empowering regulators to use their common sense.
Common Good has long-advocated for these last three ideas. On the proposal to allow regulators to exercise discretion, Inc. writes:
‘America is run by dead people,’ says Howard. ‘The people who wrote those rules are dead, so you can't argue with them or hold them accountable.’ Some regulations date back 60 years, so it is vital that live human beings have the power to interpret them, says Howard. In general, those who enforce the rules should be encouraged to exercise their best judgment depending on the situation. All too often, regulators and inspectors are conditioned to say no, because that’s the safe bet.
Click here to read the Inc. article in full.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 ›
On June 14, Common Good hosted an evening reception and discussion in New York City for Chris Anderson and his new book, TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking. Anderson is the curator of TED, a nonprofit best known for its widely popular TED Talks. Joining him in the conversation as moderators were Mark Thompson, President and CEO of The New York Times Company, and Common Good Chair – and 2010 TED Talk speaker – Philip Howard.
During the lively hour-long discussion, Anderson spoke about some of the major public speaking traps that hinder the effectiveness of many speakers, as well as the strategies that make other speakers so successful. The conversation also focused on TED’s critical role in not only providing a platform for new ideas, but also offering role models to those who may not believe they are capable of influencing the world with ideas of their own.
L to R: Mark Thompson, Chris Anderson, Philip Howard
Photos: Howard Heyman
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 ›