Resources — Philip K. Howard: New Ideas
Common Good Chair Philip K. Howard penned the following letter in today's New York Times:
In "Ideology and Investment" (column, Oct. 27), Paul Krugman rightly argues for greater investment in public infrastructure, but he doesn’t mention that bureaucracy, not ideology, has put the brakes on every recent infrastructure initiative.
A White House report in February revealed that only 3.6 percent of the $800 billion federal stimulus plan went to rebuilding transportation infrastructure. That’s not because ideology got in the way but because federal, state and local bureaucracy did.
Infrastructure approvals can now take a decade or longer, extending beyond the term of any president. In greener countries like Germany, by contrast, approvals rarely extend beyond 20 months.
To rebuild America’s decrepit infrastructure, responsible officials must be authorized to say “go.” An official of the Environmental Protection Agency must be given the job of deciding when there’s been enough review. A “one-stop shop” must be created to coordinate all needed approvals.
Infrastructure is a good investment. Bureaucracy, not ideology, is what stops it.
Read the original here.
Posted 9/30/14 by Philip K. Howard
by Philip K. Howard
Most Americans think government is broken, and despair of either party fixing it—indeed, 58 percent say we need a new political party. But what should a third party—or an independent grassroots movement—stand for?
Let’s start with the simple, essential goal of fixing and modernizing our broken government. A crescendo from all sides is calling for a complete overhaul—including books by the editors of The Economist (The Fourth Revolution), Peter Schuck (Why Government Fails So Often), Francis Fukuyama (Political Order and Political Decay), Eugene Steuerle (Dead Men Ruling) and my new book (The Rule of Nobody). But Washington will keep doing what it did yesterday until forced to change. That will require a movement that millions of Americans stand behind.
The platform, in my view, should focus on neglected goals, not merely dealing with sleazy aspects of democracy. Goals are tangible touchstones, providing clear targets as well as a basis for accountability. The continued failure of the political establishment to make progress on core goals is also irrefutable.
In trying to appeal to the vast unrepresented middle, the platform probably also needs to accept goals that each ideological wing instinctively resists. Liberals care about the environment. Conservatives care about fiscal responsibility. Moderates care about both. As an alternative to political stalemate, this draft platform calls for balanced initiatives to achieve both fiscal responsibility and a sustainable environmental footprint. The way to pay for this is to radically simplify government, updating priorities and eliminating notorious waste, inefficiency and special interest subsidies that extend back to the New Deal. As a bonus, a modern, simplified government can liberate everyone from bureaucratic paralysis—getting millions to work on rebuilding infrastructure, and relieving doctors, teachers, small businesses and everyone else from the migraine headache of mindless bureaucracy.
Here it is.
Platform for the Future.
America is drifting toward the rocks. Political parties are unlikely to risk making tough choices. A new group needs to build support for a functioning future framework. The movement should be built upon three core principles, which the political system continually fails to act on. We must demand these principles not as partisan goals, but as moral mandates:
- We must modernize government. Government is paralyzed by an accumulation of obsolete programs and mindless bureaucracy. This bureaucratic blob is smothering the American spirit. Initiative and spontaneity are increasingly illegal—bogging down teachers, entrepreneurs, citizens, even the President. The solution is not to get rid of government but to reset priorities and simplify decision-making. Human responsibility, not endless bureaucracy, should be the organizing structure of government.
- American government must not mortgage the future. The undisciplined accretion of subsidies and entitlements is immoral, making our children pay tomorrow for today’s benefits. The solution is not to terminate programs but to overhaul them to eliminate their many inefficiencies and inequities, and to make sure they are responsibly funded.
- America must be a responsible steward of the earth’s resources. America will have no moral authority to lead worldwide initiatives for clean air and water, and to preserve the vitality of oceans, unless it is disciplined in its use and oversight of finite natural resources. This requires new incentives that protect base levels of sustainability.
To accomplish these goals, American government needs to be rebuilt. There’s no avoiding it. The status quo is set in legal concrete. Fulfilling moral mandates of responsible government requires new codes—replacing the massive junk pile of well-meaning laws and programs with modern, practical structures that meet the needs of today’s society, not yesterday’s.
America’s political culture will not be helpful. It has become an engine of the status quo, going nowhere at great expense, as special interests succeed in preventing change. Breaking free of this broken political culture requires a new vision, fueled by moral imperative, of where America needs to go. What’s the right thing to do? That’s the question that should guide our choices, and define America’s future.
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What do you think? I hope you will comment, here or at the Huffington Post.
Writing for The Atlantic, Philip Howard argues that modern government lacks any sense of responsibility:
Who’s responsible for the budget deficits? Nobody: Program budgets are set in legal concrete. Who’s responsible for failing to fix America’s decrepit infrastructure? Nobody. Who’s responsible for not managing civil servants sensibly? You get the idea.
Our mistake, Howard says, is in trying to establish "clear law" that accounts for every possible circumstance in order to eliminate human error. While this sounds good in theory, in practice it prevents government officials from making sensible decisions. Take the recent VA hospital scandal for example:
Why did VA officials regularly falsify waiting times? Bureaucratic metrics required them to meet waiting time deadlines—or else they would forfeit a portion of their pay. Why didn’t they just do a better job? Compliance was basically impossible: Congress had mandated more VA services but only modestly expanded resources. Undoubtedly, better efficiency could have been squeezed out of available resources, but that would require liberating VA officials from civil-service straitjackets so they could manage other civil servants. Rigid bureaucracy, not the inexcusable dishonesty of VA officials, was the underlying cause of the VA scandal.
Howard goes on to recommend three areas of bureaucracy that are ripe for reform: Oversight of social services, the environmental review process, and the civil service system. Read his proposals here.
Posted 7/28/14 by Philip K. Howard
by Philip K. Howard
Newt Gingrich recently gave a speech at the Heritage Foundation in which he explained why government must be rebuilt, not fixed. The bureaucracy was invented about the same time as the manual typewriter, he explained, and still works in that clunky way. While an ATM machine can reliably distribute money to you and adjust your bank balance instantaneously, it takes the Pentagon 177 days to move a soldier’s health records to the Veterans’ Administration. “Nobody in the current system is allowed to think clearly about the scale of change that would be involved if you use modern technology.”
Government is stuck in paper-based organization. Federal employees’ pensions are processed by hand in a cave in Pennsylvania. Seriously. Permits for new businesses require trudging to a dozen or more different agencies. Matt Yglesias chronicled the mindless procedures required to rent out an apartment in DC. Because of all this clunky bureaucracy, the US now ranks 20th in the world in ease of starting a business.
Efforts to bring modern technology into government almost always fail, however. One study suggested that only 4 % of federal IT projects were successful. Failure is virtually guaranteed for two reasons—first, the goal is almost always to automate the current system, not to rethink the underlying organization; and second, rigid procurement procedures do not permit the vendors to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. The disaster of the Obamacare roll-out—exacerbated by 55 separate vendors –was virtually preordained by a legislative mandate requiring the technology to sort out multiple separate healthcare entitlements for each person.
The point here is not just efficient public administration. It is about historic overhaul. It’s hard to find a government program that isn’t broken—the only question is whether it’s broken 25% or 95%. Government is a huge pile of accumulated compromises and good intentions, implemented with all kinds of god-awful bureaucratic forms and requirements. Who reads all those forms? Should environmental review really take a decade? Should special ed really consume over 25% of the total K-12 budget? Do we need all those tax breaks for corporations? Or farm subsidies from the New Deal?
Newt’s speech is also notable for what it doesn’t say. The enemy in his speech is not government—everyone wants veterans to have health care. Indeed, as I argue in my new book (The Rule of Nobody), most government programs—including environmental review and special ed—are vital to our society. But the ineffectiveness of these programs is impossible to ignore.
Perhaps this is the dawn of a new political narrative. The current fault lines don’t get us anywhere, with Tea Party conservatives attacking the very idea of government, and liberals defending the virtuous aims of government without coming to grips with their pervasive semi-failures.
The new enemy is ossification. Bureaucracy imbeds the status quo in legal concrete. Why doesn’t anything get fixed? Because it’s illegal to act sensibly. Balancing the budget is basically illegal because over half the budget is pre-committed to entitlements that don’t even come up for annual authorization. Rebuilding infrastructure on a timely basis is illegal because of interminable procedures and approvals. That’s why government must be rebuilt to make it work. This is what Jeb Bush is saying on stump—clean out the stables so government can focus on current priorities. Cleaning out decades of accumulated bureaucracy needn’t be a partisan argument. Do liberals really believe in a mindless trudge through endless bureaucracy?
The new aspiration is individual initiative. Liberate humans to roll up their sleeves and get things done. This includes liberating people within government, and rationalizing civil service so they can be held accountable. It shows how far government has degenerated when radical overhaul is required to restore the core assumption of democratic governance: individual responsibility and accountability. As Newt put it: “How do we rethink human activities to maximize the power of the individual and to profoundly replace the current structure?”
Maybe there’s a crack in the door of our dark, acrid political culture.
This weekend the Washington Post published an op-ed by Philip K. Howard which presents a case for combating government dysfunction. The diagnosis:
I think we have it backward. Polarization is mainly a symptom, not the cause, of paralysis. Democracy has become powerless. Politicians who are impotent have no way to compete except by pointing fingers.
The main culprit, ironically, is law. Generations of lawmakers and regulators have written so much law, in such detail, that officials are barred from acting sensibly. Like sediment in the harbor, law has piled up until it is almost impossible—indeed, illegal—for officials to make choices needed for government to get where it needs to go.
And the solution?
Human responsibility should be restored as the operating philosophy for democracy. Only real people, not bureaucratic rules, can make adjustments to balance a budget, or be fair, or change priorities. Democracy cannot function unless identifiable people can make public choices and be accountable for the results.
Read the full piece here.
Posted 5/13/14 by Philip K. Howard
Howard's Daily by Philip K. Howard
“The problem with Howard’s ideas is that they rest on the naive fiction that there can be such a thing as ‘good government.’ In fact, the best we can hope for is less government.” So ends the critical review by Logan Albright of my new book The Rule of Nobody for the Von Mises Institute.
Just get rid of government wherever possible. That’s the simple narrative that appeals to many conservatives. Government is indeed filled with obsolete programs, such as New Deal farm subsidies. It also smothers freedom with many overbearing regulations. Shutting down children’s lemonade stands for want of a vendor’s license, for example, is absurd. Moreover, it is hard to find any government program that isn’t broken in large part. The Social Security disability program, for example, is rife with abuse. Social Security itself, perhaps the most efficient social program, is on the road to insolvency.
But the orthodoxy of smaller government doesn’t deal with the failures of what remains. Moreover, government has gotten ever bigger, even under Republican presidents, as the country confronted new challenges such as terrorism. Most citizens probably would vote for government oversight for clean restaurants, caring nursing homes, and airworthy planes.
Instead of wholesale attacks on government, philosopher Roger Scruton argues in a thoughtful essay in the new issue of First Things ("The Good of Government"), conservatives should be more discriminating about where government is needed to enhance the culture of a free society.
The important question—addressed by neither conservatives nor liberals—is why government works so badly. Environmental review shouldn’t take a decade. Starting a small business shouldn’t require permits from a dozen different agencies. Principals ought to be able to terminate ineffective teachers.
Government is organized to fail, I argue in my new book, because nobody in modern government is free to make sensible choices. No one can say, "Oh there’s no need for kids to have a vendor’s license for a lemonade stand." The president lacks the authority to expedite rebuilding projects. The teacher can’t dismiss a disruptive student without risking a drawn-out legal proceeding. Everyone is shackled to detailed rulebooks. Government is run not by accountable officials, but by humans who are told to act like legal robots. Law has become central planning. It is hardly surprising that every encounter with government is an exercise in frustration when nobody—not the regulator, not the citizen—is free to adapt to the circumstances.
A certain conservative orthodoxy, ironically, joins with liberals in demanding a central planning vision for public choices. Better legal shackles than a public official running amok. What if the official is a tyrant? That’s why the Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek concluded in his early writings that "government in all its actions…[should be] bound by rules announced and fixed beforehand."
There are many flaws in this assumption that detailed law enhances freedom. The current system of several billion words of law does not protect against a regulatory tyrant. No one, not even large companies with hundreds of lawyers, can conceivably comply with volumes of detailed rules. When noncompliance is unavoidable, officials have carte blanche to be tyrants: "Sorry, you don’t comply with Rule 256 (v)(3) (iii)."
Moreover, our options for a government operating philosophy are not limited to 1) mindless rules or 2) anything goes. The Rule of Law can constrain officials with goals and general principles, while still providing flexibility to act sensibly. Our most important principles of law—say the "reasonable person" standard—always require application by reference to social norms. But, to some conservatives, the idea of an official having discretion—even limited discretion—is like holding a cross in front of Dracula.
Here’s how Mr. Albright criticized my vision of law that leaves room for human judgment:
"Howard suggests that an exhaustive list of food standards for nursing home could be simplified to a simple requirement that they provide ‘nutritious meals.’ This sounds like common sense, but what exactly is a nutritious meal? If the inspector happens to be a vegetarian, what is to stop them for forbidding red meat, when the residents and their families were perfectly happy to have it? Discretion allows the biases of individuals to creep into enforcement, and to pretend that anyone is capable of acting wholly without bias is to deny human nature."
Is requiring "nutritious meals" really an invitation to abuse? There are accepted guidelines for nutritious meals from professional medical societies. No inspector ever has unfettered discretion to demand whatever he wants. If an inspector demanded vegan meals for everyone, or caviar at dinner, the nursing home operator could just say no. To enforce his order the inspector would have to go to court. Who do you think would win?
General principles of law are not invitations to tyranny but the opposite. "Standards that capture lay intuitions about right behavior," Judge Richard Posner notes, "may produce greater legal certainty than a network of precise…rules."
Principles are enforced according to current social norms. True, they leave room for argument. But so, usually, do precise rules. "Clear law" (with a few exceptions like speed limits and age eligibility) is generally a myth. Ambiguity is inherent in most language. With general principles, the argument focuses on right and wrong: Is this food nutritious? With precise rules, the argument focuses on parsing a legal language. The argument is no longer tethered to lay intuitions of what’s right.
I know conservatives would prefer to have no regulation. But will de-regulated nursing homes pass muster in a democracy? Over 50% of nursing home residents suffer from dementia. Can we really rely on market forces? Mr. Albright may not trust government regulators, but I suspect most Americans wouldn’t trust nursing home operators either.
How does it work out when rules permit human judgment? Airplanes are certified to be "airworthy" by FAA experts without detailed guidelines on how many rivets, etc. Would you prefer that market forces decide which planes can fly safely? Or, in the alternative, would you prefer a regime of thousands of rules where plane manufacturers can go to court, over the objections of FAA experts, and get a judge to decide that the plane complies with rules? Personally, I’d like the FAA experts to make the final decision.
Nursing homes in America, notwithstanding a thousand rules, are generally awful. How do we make them better? Mr. Albright says deregulate. I suggest radically simplified standards for oversight. In the late 1980s Australia abandoned its detailed nursing home rule book and replaced it with 31 general principles that focused on goals, such as requiring "a homelike setting," and respecting the "dignity of the residents." Within a year, nursing homes were materially better, and they’ve continued to improve over time. The reason? People are empowered to do what they think is right, not act like mindless robots.
Mr. Albright places his faith mainly in markets:
"The market is a sorting mechanism that keeps these people in line in order to preserve their profits, but government is not subject to market pressures. As such, the problem is more fundamental than too much or too little rigidity. Government is fundamentally corrupt, as it rests entirely on the premise of coercive power. Rather than tinkering with the levels of discretionary authority officials possess, we would do better to limit their power."
I too believe in the effectiveness of markets. But markets are not always good at making moral judgments, or protecting against abuse. That’s why law is essential to freedom.
Just as unfettered government authority is an evil, so too an unfettered market can lead to evil. The trick is to have the right tension between government and markets, and to have accountability over government. Democracy too should be a kind of market, with people voting their preferences. Instead democracy is out of anyone’s control. It doesn’t matter much whom we elect, because the law tells everyone what to do. By clinging to the orthodoxy of detailed law, we have unwittingly removed accountability from democracy while trying to guarantee against its abuse.
At the end of his life, Hayek recanted his demand for mechanical government, saying that he had reconsidered "the supposed greater certainty [when]…all rules of law have been laid down in written and codified form." Law works better, he concluded, when decisions are made "by generally held views of what is just."
Human initiative, not rules, make the world go round. This is what conservatives believe, and they are right. Then why don’t they see that the same truism applies to government? Government will never get fixed until humans within it are allowed the flexibility that goes along with taking responsibility. Only then can democracy hold them accountable for the many failings of modern government.
Posted 5/8/14 by Philip K. Howard
Howard's Daily by Philip K. Howard
Last week George Will wrote a powerful column on how "The Heavy Hand of the IRS Seizes Innocent Americans’ Assets." The episode involved an immigrant who owned a grocery store in Fraser, Michigan. Because about a third of its sales are in cash, the owner regularly deposited cash in a bank across the street. There is an anti-money laundering law, aimed at drug dealers, which requires banks to report cash deposits of more than $10,000, and also prohibits people from structuring deposits to avoid the law. The grocery store had been audited by the IRS several times in recent years, without any finding of suspicious activity. Last year, under broad power to catch criminals, the IRS without notice seized the grocery store’s bank account.
The story, most would agree, is an outrage. What went wrong here? George Will attacks both the law—the "guilty-until-proven-innocent" forfeiture power—and the IRS agents who decided that a grocery store making regular cash deposits was a criminal enterprise. However much Americans distrust government, Will concludes, that "distrust of government is insufficient."
Let’s unpack the story, and see if there is a moral for how government should work. I’m not an expert on money laundering, but can readily imagine why in certain circumstances the government should be able to freeze assets. Otherwise, with the press of a button, criminal resources can be transferred out of the country.
But that’s obviously not the situation here: the supposed vehicle for crime, a local grocery store, is going nowhere. It is perpetually receiving cash for cans of Coke and quarts of milk. The IRS had no need to seize deposits in order to avoid the owner fleeing the jurisdiction with ill-gotten gains.
The main thing that went wrong here is a failure of human judgment. The IRS agents abused their power. What’s the solution? In any sensibly-organized democratic structure, after an investigation, the responsible IRS officials should be sanctioned or fired.
But civil servants can’t be held accountable. The so-called "merit system" has evolved to become an "anti-merit system." Public employees can’t be fired, or even sanctioned, without years of legal proceedings. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a civil servant losing his job because he abused his power over citizens. It may be that the forfeiture law needs to include a stronger principle that it should be used only when there is reason to believe that targets and their assets will flee the jurisdiction. But that principle still requires human judgment. No set of words in law can ever remove the need for humans to act appropriately.
Personal accountability should be the operating mechanism for any organization. Without it, culture soon degrades. Government today is a tangled jungle of incoherent law and regulation because we look to words, rather than personal responsibility, as the way of safeguarding against error. My conclusion is this: the main flaw in modern government is not that officials have too much power, but that they can’t be accountable when they abuse it.
Posted 5/7/14 by Philip K. Howard
An excerpt from The Rule of Nobody by Philip K. Howard.
There have been twenty-seven amendments to the Constitution. The most recent, the Twenty-Seventh Amendment, proposed in 1789 and ratified in 1992, prohibits changing congressional pay raises from taking effect until "an election of representatives shall have intervened." One has been repealed (the Eighteenth Amendment, which prohibited the sale of alcoholic beverages, was repealed by the Twenty-First Amendment).
Under Article V of the Constitution, the process for amending the Constitution basically requires two steps: First, the amendment must be proposed either by a two-thirds vote of each house of Congress, or by a constitutional convention called by legislatures of two-thirds of the states. Second, the amendment must be ratified either, at the choice of Congress, by legislatures of three-fourths of the states or by constitutional conventions in three-fourths of the states.
To the existing twenty-seven amendments, I propose adding five new amendments that would become the Bill of Responsibilities. These amendments could be acted upon together or separately.
1. The Twenty-Eighth Amendment would impose a mandatory sunset so that all laws and programs with budgetary impact would automatically expire every fifteen years, and could not be reenacted without new findings and a report from an independent commission. This amendment would not generally apply to criminal laws, for example, but would encompass most regulatory and social welfare programs. This amendment also would give Congress the authority to invalidate regulations that were promulgated pursuant to a legislative mandate—in effect, putting Congress on an equal footing with the executive branch, which currently has unilateral authority, subject to judicial review, to repeal regulations:
Amendment XXVIII: No statute or regulation requiring expenditure of public or private resources (other than to oversee legal compliance or enforcement), shall be in force for longer than fifteen years. Congress may reenact such a law only after finding that it continues to serve the public interest and does not unnecessarily conflict or interfere with other priorities. Before making its determinations, Congress shall consider recommendations by an independent commission on whether and how to amend any such statute or program. At any time, Congress by majority vote of each house shall have the power to invalidate any regulation promulgated under a statutory delegation, without presentment to the President.
2. The Twenty-Ninth Amendment would restore to the President authority to manage the executive branch more actively by issuing executive orders, subject to congressional override, to reorganize agencies, veto specific items in proposed budgets, and impound money to avoid waste. Today the executive branch is mired in obsolete congressional mandates, maintained by congressional inertia rather than deliberate choices. This amendment would give the President authority to push back while still leaving the ultimate judgment with Congress:
Amendment XXIX: By executive order, subject to being overridden by majority vote in each house, the President may: reorganize executive agencies and departments; veto line items in proposed budgets; refuse to spend budgeted funds for any program in order to avoid waste or inefficiency; and undertake to accomplish statutory goals, consistent with statutory principles, by means other than those set forth in the statute or implementing regulations.
3. The Thirtieth Amendment would restore to the President authority to manage and terminate government personnel, subject only to budgetary guidelines and a neutral hiring protocol to avoid handing out jobs as “spoils.” This amendment is intended to return civil service to its roots as a “merit system,” not a sinecure of permanent employment. It is not possible to restore responsibility to government, giving officials flexibility to act sensibly and morally, unless they can be accountable. Historians of public service believe that modern civil service is neither effective nor responsive—an unrecognizable mutation of the original progressive vision for good government. Ossified civil service has become a symbol of bad government, and must be abandoned:
Amendment XXX: The President shall have authority over personnel decisions in the executive branch, including authority to terminate public employees, within budgetary guidelines and neutral hiring protocols established by Congress.
4. The Thirty-First Amendment would restore reliability to American civil justice by requiring judges to safeguard reasonable boundaries of who can sue for what. Lawsuits today are a tool for extortion and delay, with corrosive effects on free interaction throughout society. The first principle of fair justice is that like cases should be decided alike. That core precept requires judges to assert values of reasonableness, as a matter of law, to bring consistency to what has become a legal casino:
Amendment XXXI: Notwithstanding the provisions of the Seventh Amendment and any state law or constitution, in lawsuits that may impede the conduct of government, or that may diminish general freedoms of persons in society, judges shall make rulings of law drawing boundaries of reasonable claims and defenses, and dismiss claims and defenses falling outside those boundaries. No person shall be required to respond to any lawsuit unless a judge shall determine that the claims are reasonable and there are reasonable allegations to support them against each person.
5. The Thirty-Second Amendment would create an independent Council of Citizens to evaluate and issue reports on the workings of government. Government has acquired a life of its own, disconnected from the needs of society, but there is little focused objection because government maintains a monopoly on public discourse. This advisory council would be a locus of moral authority, untarnished by political ambition or monetary self-interest. Democracy needs citizen supervision:
Amendment XXXII: A Council of Citizens shall be established as an advisory oversight body on the workings of government. The council shall consist of nine members, Appendix: Bill of Responsibilities 183 chosen by and from a Nominating Council composed of two nominees by each governor of a state. The members shall each have a term of five years, and may be renominated and chosen to serve additional terms. The council shall have no mandatory duties other than to nominate independent commissions to advise Congress on the rewriting of laws. Congress shall provide funding adequate to support staff and shall provide an honorarium to each member of the council in an amount equal to the salary of a member of Congress.
More excerpts from The Rule of Nobody are available here.
Posted 5/2/14 by Philip K. Howard
A retroactive raise is what made the headlines of the proposed new NYC teachers’ contract. But the exciting breakthrough is the potential for abandoning the bureaucratic swamp that has made it impossible to fix NYC schools.
Some school reformers will be excited that it will be easier to get rid of poor performers—requiring, according to news reports, poor evaluations in two separate schools. This is indeed important. It is impossible to build and maintain a culture of excellence when poor performers are in the classroom next door. One bad apple, studies show, can spoil the barrel.
But the revelation of the new deal is the idea of mutual bureaucratic disarmament. For decades, the City and the union have done battle by imposing on each other more rules and requirements—for example, detailed requirements, sometimes minute by minute, on how a teacher must deliver a lesson plan, and requirements on exactly how many minutes per month a teacher has to listen to a principal.
A study by Common Good a few years ago found that there were so many rules for NYC schools that no one had collected them in one place. Even the more rudimentary choices—say, removing a disruptive student from a classroom—are subject to dozens of rules and procedures that effectively remove a teacher’s authority to maintain order. Common Good constructed bubble charts of steps and procedures for basic choices that were five feet long.
All this bureaucracy makes schools unmanageable. But it also does something far worse. Bureaucracy kills the human spirit. It’s that simple. A teacher who is forced to trudge through mindless protocols cannot possibly be enthusiastic. Inspiring students is impossible when the teacher is forced to act like a bureaucratic robot.
The myth of bureaucracy is that it makes sure things are done properly. But people can only think of one thing at once. Focus on A, as sociologist Robert K. Merton put it, and you cannot see B. Forcing teachers (and principals, and students) to focus on thick rulebooks just snuffs out the candle of human inspiration. What kind of role models are teachers who are forced to act like robots instead of moral models of maturity and fairness?
For decades leaders in schools have been stuck in a downward spiral of bureaucratic warfare. Good principals succeeded by ignoring the rules. New NYC Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina famously built a culture of excellence at PS 6 by, among other things, ignoring the bureaucracy. (I profiled her in my book The Collapse of the Common Good.) Union leader Michael Mulgrew is not one to give an inch, but in many different settings, in conversations with me and others, he too has highlighted how bureaucracy had become the worst enemy of teachers.
The devil of every deal is in the details. But extra money to teachers is a bargain if New York City can unleash human energy and enthusiasm in its schools. Bureaucracy can’t teach.
Howard's Daily by Philip K. Howard
The chorus grows for basic overhaul of infrastructure approvals. A recent essay by former Sen. Pete Domenici and Jason Grumet, head of the Bipartisan Policy Center, explains that “[o]ur permitting policies are antiquated and poorly matched to our rapidly evolving needs," leading to "train wreck[s]" of endless indecision like the Keystone XL debacle. To have any hope of modernizing our energy production and distribution, we urgently need to rethink the way that we approve infrastructure projects in America.