The Center on Capitalism and Society at Columbia University, led by Nobel Laureate Edmund Phelps, co-hosted with Common Good a half-day forum to discuss the paper “Bureaucracy vs. Democracy” by Common Good Chair Philip K. Howard and its implications for the need to reboot legacy bureaucracies.

The event, held in February 2019, convened leading scholars and practitioners to explore the bureaucratic causes of public paralysis and voter alienation in America. A list of all speakers is shown below. They included influential thinkers in political science, economics, sociology, regulation, education, and legal philosophy. For the complete agenda, click here.

To open the forum, Philip Howard presented the paper “Bureaucracy vs. Democracy,” which summarizes economic, psychological, and legal critiques of bureaucracy. To read the paper, click here. To read an excerpted version published by The American Interest, click here.

Below are video clips of several presentations. Additional videos can be found on Common Good’s YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts.

Philip K. Howard, Common Good
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The goal of the forum, Philip states, is to question the basis on which we’ve organized modern government. His hypothesis – which he expounds upon in his forum paper and his new book, Try Common Sense–is that we can’t repair the current system but must replace it. “We can’t repair it, because it’s impenetrably dense and doesn’t let humans make the choices needed to get anything done.” The solution, he states, is to create a system where we give people responsibility – “an affirmative duty to do something, that’s defined by law, and enforced by other officials.” “If you find any agency or school that works tolerably well,” he concludes, “you’ll find people who are doing this.”

A short clip is available to the left. To watch his full presentation, click here.

Nobel Laureate Paul Romer, NYU
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Professor Romer begins his remarks by stating that he used to take for granted that “rule of law” was preferable to “rule of men,” but that Philip Howard persuaded him that having less decision-making by people is a fundamentally wrong way to aim. “What we have to do is ask people to be responsible for some set of decisions,” Romer argues. “That means they make those decisions based on what they see; then, after some period of time, you look back and you see what the consequences were…and you hold them responsible…. This idea that somehow we can just take people who make decisions out of the system is just really kind of absurd.”

A short clip is available to the left. To watch his full presentation, click here.

Francis Fukuyama, Stanford
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“There are too many rules in the way that we govern the country,” Professor Fukuyama argues. “Government officials need to use their own human judgment to make various complex tradeoffs…. And, at the same time, we need a system of greater accountability.” He points to other countries where this has been tried and empirical literature to convey that “a sufficient degree of bureaucratic autonomy is actually the key to a high-performing public sector.” He goes on to discuss the caveats that would make it harder to apply in an American context, including the “very poor mandates” issued by Congress and public distrust.

A short clip is available to the left. To watch his full presentation, click here.

Paul C. Light, NYU
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Professor Light identifies six hazards facing the federal bureaucracy, including an aging workforce as well as aging hierarchies and statutes. On layers of government, he states: “The federal hierarchy has never had more layers of managers nor more leaders per layer. We are 71 layers between the top and bottom of government.” Taken together, he argues, these hazards can be seen as a source of increasing public demand for fundamental change: “This country may be deeply divided between red and blue on many issues, but right now about 65% of Americans agree that the federal government needs ‘very major reform.’” The fight over government reform, he concludes, may very well decide the 2020 presidential election.

A short clip is available to the left. To watch his full presentation, click here.

Robin Lake, University of Washington
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Professor Lake discusses how bureaucracy plays out in public education, noting the irony of the harm caused by rules and regulations that arose from good intentions. In particular, she outlines four damaging effects of accumulated bureaucracy: divided schools, muddied accountability, deadened innovation, and hardwired inequality. “Every rule,” she argues, “is there because it was settled by a past fight, or was a priority of the last majority, so these are very hard things to unwind piece by piece. And you’ve got two pretty powerful bureaucracies in public schools – central offices and unions – that end up fighting each other as much as anybody else.”

A short clip is available to the left. To watch her full presentation, click here.

 

Videos of the entire event, including its three panel discussions, are available here:

Full Panel 1
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Introduction and Welcome: 
Edmund Phelps, Center on Capitalism and Society

Opening Remarks:

Philip K. Howard, Common Good

Participants:
 
Mark Whitaker, journalist and author
Paul C. Light, NYU
Richard Sennett, NYU and LSE
Sally Katzen, NYU Law
Nicole Gelinas, Manhattan Institute
Philip Howard (presenting remarks on behalf of Patrick Foye, MTA)

Full Panel 2
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Participants:
Megan McArdleWashington Post
Jeremy Waldron, NYU Law
Bruce Homer, CUNY
Francis Fukuyama, Stanford
Robin Lake, University of Washington
Paul Romer, NYU
Edmund Phelps, Center on Capitalism and Society
Richard Robb, Columbia

Full Panel 3
Play Video

Participants:
Megan McArdleWashington Post
Philip K. Howard, Common Good
Mark Whitaker, journalist and author