Friday, August 8, 2008


I'm thinking a lot about the inertia of certain institutions that requires them after a certain tipping point to invest most of their energies into prolonging their own existences. (This was brought back up by the recent BOCES report, BOCES being a big offender in this regard.) I'm seeing a lot of evidence of this in the budget discussions happening at the county and city levels. Yet these institutions must do it convincingly, because no one wants to cut anything. I wonder whether certain small governmental bodies might fit into this group--village boards, for example. (I know that will rile Simon up.)


Anonymous said...

As someone working with a wildlife conservation NGO, I face this all the time. We try very hard to avoid this trap. Our goal is to make ourselves irrelevant -- for example, from running a protected area, including paying all staff, to serving as a "respected advisor" to government on how best to manage the PA. Of course, we're one of the few in the field to bother doing that. But we're unikely to work ourselves out of a job, globally -- it's sort of like being an undertaker.
Of course, with BOCES or similar organizations, who do they pass the work on to? We pass it to government, but that's obviously not the choice here.

Simon said...

I know, I know - you're trying to get me to return to the blogosphere more actively, or something nice like that.

My usual answer to these kinds of questions is to look at institutions relations to their constituents, and especially to the final constituents, voters.

I suspect that BOCES is especially intractable this way because it has virtually no responsibility to anyone who can easily "vote the bastards out". (I'd say the same thing about the NYS Legislature over the last thirty years, though - there are plenty of ways to insulate an institution from, er, responsibility to stakeholders.)

At the village and town level, though, the problem is different. We've had a long period of government by people who didn't think that government should do all that much. They might respond to requests to do something, but haven't exactly taken initiative. The lights stay on, the roads stay paved, the laws stay in rough compliance with the State's expectations, but there isn't a whole lot happening.

There, the problem isn't so much institutional inertia as getting a different, more active, philosophy of government into action. That means convincing voters it's a good idea, which I think we're only beginning to succeed at.

The most difficult inertia I see isn't in the appointed tasks of these institutions, but in the challenge of making them accountable - and that means taking on the really difficult task of showing voters that they can indeed make a difference.

It'll take a long time for that to penetrate to the level of BOCES, admittedly, as they seem set up with isolation in mind. We'll see whether we can manage that over the next few years, or maybe decades.

KAZ said...

Anon: With BOCES, they might well pass the work back to the districts, who often nowadays can do the same thing for less. Not everything--I think BOCES still does very well with special ed and adult ed--but the amount of stuff we buy through BOCES and the BOCES "services" that nobody asks for or particularly needs do nothing for our bottom line, despite the constant harangue that "it's aidable."

Simon--As for the initiatives at the village and town level, many of them are pleasing and useful (broadband access), others are nice though controversial (trails in Caroline), and most don't seem to me to require the many levels and partitions of government we have in place.

I may be irked because I've been tapped to serve on an advisory board that shall remain nameless but that seems to perpetuate a sort of selling of the government to the people that I find a little alarming. I guess the good news is that advisory boards, being made up of volunteers, don't cost anything. On the other hand, if we've hired the correct people, why do we need advisory boards? One wonders if it's a form of appeasement--making folks feel that their opinions matter.

And your suggestion that legislatures fall into this inert category is exactly right--when the goal becomes to be re-elected, well, that's the goal.

But I'm just crabby today.

Simon said...

I'm just trying to imagine the outcry if it was the county government that wanted trails in Caroline...

I think we do have levels for a reason. I mostly object when we have nebulous upper levels like BOCES, or piles of special districts whose administration is mysterious because no one specifically watches over them.

On the selling government idea, we're in kind of a strange moment. One party champions "selling government" and another party also champions "selling government". Usually, though, one side is "selling out" and "selling off", while the other is more interested in getting people to support it.

Overall, though, the main thing we need is interest in government - the best way to make all of these things work, and to find the right mix of levels, is to have an electorate that's paying attention.

Maybe we shouldn't be selling the importance of government's power so much as the importance of the voters' power, and pushing to strengthen it.

That'd be a change in this state!