The 2019 state legislative session is just two weeks away, and to start off, House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke has an excellent, commonsense plan for holding state agencies more accountable. It’s called zero-based budgeting.

Excellent, yes, but the plan needs to come with a warning label and a list of possible side effects.

A zero-based budget means that in every budget cycle all state agencies start from scratch. Each must explain how they will spend their money,  with valid performance measures acceptable to the Legislature.

Sounds so good.  And it can be, subject to these five limits.

Rep Sylvia Luke on last day of extended session.
Rep. Sylvia Luke has made a very logical proposal to revamp how the state government spends its money. But will it work in the real world? Cory Lum/Civil Beat

• First, zero-based budgeting encourages scolding, but scolding often doesn’t work. 

Legislators scold all the time and with good reason. “You didn’t do your homework,” they say, rebuking some hapless flack-catching bureaucrat or nervous UH official who had finished every Tums in his three-pack even before finding a parking space at the Capitol.

But scolding has its limits. Putting this in wonky, psychological terms, the link between negative sanctions, like threats or scolding, and compliance is problematical.

Forget the wonk, just ask any parent: “I’ve told you a hundred times ...”

In this state, finding examples of such post-scolding noncompliance is about as hard as finding a haystack in a haystack. Just riffle through State Auditor reports.

• Second, the quest for performance measures can get out of hand. 

“We need measurables,” Luke says. You bet. But this can also lead us down some wrong paths.

We need them badly in Hawaii because the same agencies have the same goofs and inefficiencies year after year despite getting called out and dumped on.

The existing accountability system is a joke, “a paper exercise,” Marion Higa the former state auditor calls it.

As Luke points out, a key reason for the joke is — hey, get this! — it allows government agencies to create their own performance measures and pretty much decide on their own how they are performing.

That’s like relying on your eighth-grader as the sole source of information about how she is doing at Niu Intermediate.

But measurement enthusiasm, even considering our dingbat assessment system, needs dampening.

Many things that government does are hard to measure in a clean quantifiable way — the quality of public-school teachers for instance.

Bad things happen if, in its desire for “measurables,” the Legislature chooses easily measured but deeply limiting criteria. That in a nutshell is the history of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, where test scores became so central that schools focused on narrowly teaching to the test at the expense of other valuable parts of the curriculum.

• Third, legislators may be unwilling to accurately assess performance.

A few years ago Peter Schuck wrote a really insightful book about this (Why Government Fails So Often: And How It Can Do Better.”) He focused on the federal government, but his findings apply generally.

Politicians often don’t want a program to be carefully evaluated. There are political costs to discovering that your pet project, like a relocation subsidy to a large corporation or a taxpayer subsidized stadium, really doesn’t pay off.

So a form of confirmation bias takes hold, a cherry-picking of success (or failure) stories that support your pre-existing beliefs.

Add to this mixture interest groups that have a big stake in the program’s success, and you have a very potent counterforce to assessment.

That’s a big reason why so many policy evaluation endeavors end up gathering dust and cockroach droppings.

• Fourth, the Legislature itself it is often the key enabler of government inefficiency.

Put the blame on Mame, boys. Sometimes it’s the scolder who deserves the scolding.

Too often, the Legislature passes laws giving government agencies more work but without money to carry it out.  Then legislators blame the agency for not adequately fulfilling its mission.

The Department of Health has been victimized this way. But the DOH has also benefitted from the opposite bad legislative behavior, wherein the Legislature appears willfully to ignore consistently noncompliant behavior. For years it has allowed the DOH to ignore its mandate for inspecting and licensing elderly facilities.

Or the Legislature fails to pass laws that make it possible for government agencies to do their work effectively.

That’s a key reason why the airport is such a mess. It’s also true of the Stadium Authority and the University of Hawaii.

• Fifth, zero-based budgeting is a good start, but when it comes to bad governing, it is just a tiny tool for a huge problem.

 Let’s be real about Hawaii’s governance problems. They are long-term, stubborn, and by now institutionalized into the fabric of the state’s organizational culture.

Changing this requires enormously hard work that finds ways both to hold people more accountable and to create incentives that encourage them to be more creative and less risk-averse.

Gov. David Ige, who has often sold himself as an organizational change maven, has been a gigantic disappointment in this regard.

So has every other potential player.

The public employee unions, which could and should play an important role in a collaborative process concerned with improving state government, take a much narrower view of their mission.

Sure, the Legislature has oversight responsibility, but that alone goes only so far, even with a new and better budget tool.

What’s the difference between an effective politician and a mere scolder? The scolder wraps her head around a number cruncher’s green eye-shade visor, while an effective policymaker steps up and puts on her big kid pants.

To really make things work better in state government, we need big kid pants all around.

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