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Why Don’t Governments Actually Solve Problems?

Disorder_jamisonDo they want to fail? Those big-ticket government programs we set up as the panaceas for all of society’s ills … do they want to fail? Of course not, that would be stupid, right? I want to dismiss that idea as stupid. I really do, because the alternative is nauseating.

I want to believe that public servants wish to serve their country; that teachers care about students, and nurses about patients. I want to believe that blue collar workers take pride in a job well done, and that white collar ones take pride in turning ideas into reality. I want to believe in politicians that will stake their careers on a principle, and in judges that prize real justice. Should that really be too much to ask? I even suspect that many people live up to that expectation — shining examples of good and decent people quietly doing the right thing, day by day.

So why do the wheels come off when you assign a task to a Government program? Low-income government housing chronically fails to meet minimum living standards. Education devours mountains of tax dollars while our students still struggle to read or add. Public libraries cry poor, but stock their shelves with movies and video games. We spend resources on home-delivering free needles to addicts, but lack sufficient rehab spaces for people who want to kick the habit.

Assigning a government agency to solve any social problem seems the surest route to failure. Two possible explanations readily present themselves. (If I have overlooked others, the comment section is open.)

The first possibility is that government has a busted Midas touch. Everything they touch turns to crud, and costs a lot of gold. The original assignment becomes wrapped in red tape, subject to layers of administration, endless policies and legalistic protocols until they choke out their own intended purpose beneath the crushing weight of bureaucracy. It’s well-intentioned death by a thousand cuts.

The second possibility is that the agencies assigned to solve a problem have a financial interest in perpetuating that problem.

Suppose a new office was opened tomorrow and assigned to some worthy goal, maybe eliminating homelessness. What happens?

They will have to hire front line staff, managers, consultants, HR personnel, and so on. Naturally, they will need somewhere to work, a nice office space. There will be a lot of paperwork, so every employee will need a computer. There will be meetings, and time spent away from their desks, so they’ll need smartphones. Each person would need either a cubicle, or (better yet) their own offices. With so many electronics, you will need to hire someone to manage them. You will also require a phone system of adequate size and complexity.

You might need accounts receivable and accounts payable, and some accountants to keep tabs on expenditures. Proper legal counsel will be important, so you might have a bevy of lawyers on staff or retainer. Of course there will be incidentals like desks, paper, copiers, carpeting, artwork and coffee. You will need to hire janitorial staff, and maintenance to empty the recycling and keep the Energy-efficient lights replaced.

You will need to keep morale up. That will require staff meetings, team development days, retreats, that sort of thing. The operation is getting pretty large, and may need to be broken into departments, with requisite department heads and middle management.

There is an operating budget assigned and dutifully used up by year’s end, whether the expenses were necessary or not. Because, naturally, unused budget money is an invitation for cutbacks. The number of people you supervise and the size of your operating budget become measurements of status and importance among bureaucrats. A reduction of operating budget diminishes the manager’s perceived importance. This can incentivize managers to maintain or enlarge budgets and staffing, even without real justification.

So, with all this in place, how many homeless people have been helped?

To this point, unless the homeless themselves were hired for these various positions, not a single homeless person has been helped. But in the next phase: the combined might of this force will sub-contract experts to make an assessment and formulate a plan to help those unfortunate souls.

Now we come to the real problem. Hypothetically, imagine two solutions presented themselves. Let’s say one is a “legacy” solution, something that will meet some needs of the people suffering from homelessness, but will require more staff, experts, systems money and real estate to operate in perpetuity. And say the other was a “silver bullet” solution that actually resolves the homeless problem within a year.

What is the manager to do? If he uses the silver bullet solution, he has committed career suicide, not just for himself, but for the entire department. He will have put all those people out of work. So he picks the other solution.

And back to the status consideration. If you intentionally exclude conclusive silver bullet options, the problem will always be “just a little bigger than our current budget can fix.” On that basis, legislators can be regularly pressured to expand the department, increasing the managers’ relative prestige.

And thus, Government bureaucracy flips the results-based free market model upside down, and for the same reasons, it could be said that departments incapable of solving real-world problems are actually profiting from their failures.

Wes Walker

Wes Walker is the author of "Blueprint For a Government that Doesn't Suck". He has been lighting up since its inception in July of 2012. Follow on twitter: @Republicanuck