While stories of federal government inefficiency usually involve more jaw-dropping numbers and create more heat among the chattering classes, paralyzing and wasteful bureaucracy permeates every level of government. Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times this week tells the story of Bob Stone, a fix-it man hired to curb L.A.’s red tape problem--for an annual salary of $1 (which he still hasn’t received). Mr. Stone is no stranger to government paralysis; he was instrumental in Vice President Al Gore’s "reinventing government" initiative (in which Philip Howard also participated). But in L.A., Mr. Stone found a bigger challenge than he had expected: "After struggling and battling the federal bureaucracy for 30 years, I thought L.A. would be a pushover. But it's tougher than the federal bureaucracy."
Mr. Stone discovered that city employees are forced to navigate a labyrinth of approvals and checks, even for what should be simple tasks, like ordering firefighter uniforms. Both workers and managers waste countless hours following outdated procedures, filling out paperwork, and struggling with obsolete technology:
"Two-thirds of what passes as management is interfering with workers getting their work done," Stone said, attributing the suffocating practice to a 19th century notion that "the way to manage is to control what people do."
So Mr. Stone is doing his best to simplify--replacing complex and expensive procedures with simple and affordable alternatives, saving the city money and, perhaps even more importantly, freeing city employees to do their jobs. As Lopez writes:
Any large organization, public or private, has dumb ways of doing things just because that's the way they have always been done. And at any given time, Stone suggested without irony or exaggeration, roughly one-third of all employees are impeding the work of the other two-thirds.
Does that mean there are too many employees, I asked? What it means, Stone countered, is that employees could get a lot more done if they weren't bound and gagged by red tape and managerial impediments.
More cities could use the kind of intervention Mr. Stone is undertaking. And perhaps such efforts can serve in turn as instructive examples for federal bureaucracies.