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Let’s take a break from today’s political campaigns and consider governance.
Why? Because governance is ultimately more important and because Hawaii has a serious governance problem that political campaigns, by their very nature, underplay.
Yet these governance problems limit the success of any winning candidate once she or he takes office.
Political campaigns are about aspirations and promises. They are about what government should do, not about what government can do. It is hopes and dreams versus nuts and bolts. Political philosophy versus political mechanics.
“Should” is sexy and gets the attention. “Can” is dull, off in the shadows somewhere.
But ultimately that dull governance question is far more important because elections are just a means to reach the real objective, which is the allocation of goods and services. That is what government is all about.
In Hawaii elections come and go, but the same governance problems keep cropping up. Here is a short list of these regulars.
Accountability: State officials don’t follow up on policies to see if they are working. They don’t pay enough attention to what’s going on. The debacle over the way University of Hawaii officials’ failure to monitor its athletic facility remodeling is just one of the many of these failures over the years. UH is a serial accountability violator, but so are many other agencies.
Implementation: Remember the Chinatown rat infestation and the lack of vermin vector inspectors? That is simply a spectacularly queasy example of a common governance problem.
Agencies that are supposed to carry out policy fail to do so. Health and safety inspections don’t take place as often as the law requires. Prisons close their doors to visitors because they don’t have enough staff.
Disinterest in evidence: Important policies often show little concern about whether they are actually achieving their objectives. When the Legislature first adopted tax breaks for the film industry, legislators expressed some concern about the policy’s effectiveness.
Over time, despite evidence that the policy was not working, this concern disappeared. These categories of problems are not rare. They don’t ever go away. They are part of the regular fabric of governing in Hawaii.
The question is why does Hawaii government fail so often?
In his recent book “Why Government Fails So Often and How It Can Do Better,” Peter H. Schuck asks that same question of the federal government. Even though his book is about national domestic policy, his answers help us understand Hawaii’s own policy failures.
Schuck shows how and why national policy-making failure is so pervasive and penetrating. He argues that the factors that limit successful policy are cultural and structural.
These are the hardest things of all to change. They are often constitutionally inscribed and “are so deeply embedded in our national psyche that they are alterable, if at all, only slowly and at the margins.”
Here is a brief list of these embedded historical and cultural characteristics: faith in the U.S. Constitution as a restraint on power; localism and hostility to centralized authority; emphasis on the protection of individual rights; political pluralism dominated by interest groups; acceptance of social and economic inequality; religiosity and political moralism; social diversity; distrust of expertise and official discretion; responsiveness to public opinion; and an enormous and active civil society.
The question is why does Hawaii government fail so often?
(The list does not do his argument justice. He puts all the pieces together in Chapter 4. For a really engaging, fair, and informative look at his work, see Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” Schuck interview.)
This mixture creates an enormously complex political and social world that is hard to fathom, much less to change. All administrations, liberal or conservative, face these same solid limits to success.
Federal domestic programs have failed so often because they bump up against those stable, complexity-creating obstacles.
What’s success, and what’s not? According to Schuck’s sensible criteria, in order to be successful, a policy needs to have the right incentives to get the desired behavior. The policy must be credible to those who are needed to make it succeed. The policy must be managed to avoid fraud, waste, and abuse.
To ensure success, polices must be monitored constantly with an operating assumption that things will not work as planned.
Sounds pretty logical, right? You pass some legislation, take a look at how it is working, make adjustments and, if it is a real flop, get rid of it.
Logical, yes. The way national policymaking historically works, no.
In the most valuable part of the book Schuck, who calls himself a “militant moderate,” shows how seldom these steps toward success are followed. Most federal government programs are poorly targeted. They fail to help the people they are supposed to help. They don’t adjust to the unforeseen consequences that always arise.
Finally, federal bureaucrats, for whom he has a great deal of respect and admiration, simply do not have the capacities to uncover or anticipate the complexities of the social world they are trying to affect.
The degree of policy failure has been colossal and, more importantly, as Schuck demonstrates, endemic. By his criteria most of the federal government’s domestic polices have failed. During the last 150 years only a handful of policies have really worked.
So success is rare, but recognition of failure is even rarer.
As you listen to the candidates in the 2014 races, think about the limits of what they can accomplish despite their good intentions and despite your hopes and dreams.
Failure is far from not being an option. The way American politics works, it’s almost impossible to fail, or, as Schuck puts it in a Huffington Post blog piece, “nothing succeeds like failure.”
Here is why. Policy makers typically show little interest in assessment or implementation. If they do show interest, it is only for assessments that support their preconceived ideas about the policy.
Powerful interests that have a stake in retaining a policy fight hard, and usually successfully, to keep the policy in place, regardless of the evidence. Schuck shows that farm subsidy policy (now, at last, a bit changed for the better) and ethanol policy are prime examples of this economically irrational but politically rational process.
For Hawaii Schuck’s arguments are relevant in several ways.
First, it is a strong reminder that good policy-making requires serious and objective use of data. What a mundane point, right? If only. Hawaii’s policy-making is far from being as evidence-based as it should be.
Overall, the book is bracing because it is so — and isn’t this a nice change? — empirical. It’s about evidence. To play by his rules, you need to present evidence, not political philosophy.
If policy success is so fraught and uncertain, policymakers need to pay far more attention to what works and why. Using Schuck’s criteria for success and failure is a good place to start.
Second, the same kinds of processes that encourage “nothing succeeds like failure” at the national level certainly apply in Hawaii. Powerful interests that have a stake in the status quo create policy blinders in Hawaii just as they do in Washington D.C.
Third, many of Hawaii’s policy problems may be deeply rooted and endemic — embedded in the state’s culture and history — in the same sense that Schuck uses those terms.
Political campaigns are not about discovering such roots. How could they possibly be? That requires a very different, more long-term kind of political analysis.
Still, as you listen to the candidates in the 2014 races, think about the limits of what they can accomplish despite their good intentions and despite your hopes and dreams.