Chaotic and Messy > Orderly and Dumb

Local Units of Government

H/T to StrongTowns Blog for a News Digest item on a Bloomberg op-ed/ investigative/ advocacy journalism piece on my college state of Illinois.  Chuck’s commentary hits a couple hot buttons (e.g. “economic development” vs “industrial recruitment”) and, well, how much Illinois in general is messed up.

When Chuck Marohn visited Laramie a couple weeks ago, I keyed into one part of his presentation.  Smart “Chaotic and Messy” projects beat “Orderly and Dumb” most any day.  In business, we’ve seen this in Silicon Valley’s start-up culture.  Maybe only 1 in 100 new ideas go anywhere, but then maybe you have to fail safe 99 times in order to capitalize on the 1 big new thing.  The public sector has tended to farm out innovation to the non-profit sector, yet the beauty of federalism has always been how it lets the 50 states and their countless political units to try new ideas, to adjust and adapt and report back to the nation.  This is difficult for me personally, because I like things orderly.

Somewhere along the way, too many of us “professionals” of all stripes began looking to the federal government as a source of innovation, rather than the repository of best practices.  At the other end of the spectrum, I have seen specialized agencies and special service districts insulated from the public.  Those of us interested in good government do need to keep an interest in these organizations—don’t wait to be asked, offer to help out.  It is in the local, the focused, the specialized where we have the most flexibility to run controlled experiments and maybe learn something.

We need to push accountability as close to the people as possible, and push scalable ideas as far up the policy ladder as we can.  Fail small.  Win big.

Chuck says:

  • One of the more frustrating things for me in our national political dialog is how, for many Republicans, all levels of government are equally vilified. I’ve been at city council meetings where dogmatic, self-proclaimed “limited government” types give money to subsidize national corporate chains in the name of “growth”, borrow money to build roads (because we have to have good roads) and then vote to gut the maintenance staff, police force or fire unit (we can’t have all this government). Worse yet, I’ve seen states where the legislature piles on the mandates and micromanages their local governments all the while limited their flexibility (an act that is called oversight). This is all backwards. We do need some massive pruning at the federal and state levels — an overall simplification of our approach to emphasize outcomes and not process — but we need a lot of experimentation and, quite frankly, more active and empowered governments at the local level. This will be, as I’ve said in the past, a more chaotic and messy approach than what we have now, but it will be a lot more flexible, innovative and ultimately smarter. This is all a long way of saying that articles that both revere Reagan and despise local governments are attacking the solution, not the problem, and doing it from a distorted ideological framework.

“The big focus is on Washington D.C. and deficits and tax increases,” said Dan Cronin, chairman of the DuPage County board in the longtime Republican stronghold west of Chicago. “But people frequently overlook a significant chunk represented by under-the-radar government — quiet, sleepy, unaccountable.”

Across the country, there are 38,266 special purpose districts, or government units distinct from cities, counties and schools, each with its own ability to raise money. Since President Ronald Reagan declared in his 1981 inaugural address that government “is not the solution to our problem — government is the problem,” their numbers have jumped 32 percent.

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Update: Great minds think alike: Chaotic but Smart at Strong Towns.

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1 Response to Chaotic and Messy > Orderly and Dumb

  1. Winston says:

    Those special districts are a British tool inherited from an outmoded era. Former British colonies like India also have them. They get in way of modern governance there as well.
    http://www.financialexpress.com/news/too-many-cooks-in-each-other-s-way-for-the-urban-services-kitchen/121673
    Too many cooks in each other’s way for the urban services kitchen

    They are symptoms of a failure to integrate local government units in the modern era. They are the default choice in US.

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