STEPHEN GOLDSMITH, the former mayor of Indianapolis, current Deputy Mayor of New York City and widely recognized big thinker about how to make cities run better, offers a thoughtful reflection about the state of city government in a recent Wall Street Journal Op-Ed.
Aside from his views, which I'll summarize in a moment, what I like most about this piece is that he offers a much more civil, authorative and informed analysis about the problems of governent (city government mostly) than what we've gotten recently from the many shrill voices emerging around the standoff in Madison, Wisconsin. The implication is that all the heat generated there around the Governor's efforts to ban collective bargaining rights of public employee unions misses a big point and keeps us from dealing with the real issue.
According to Goldsmith, "It is not government unions per se but progressive government itself—long celebrated in Wisconsin, New York and elsewhere—that no longer produces progressive results."
"In the early 20th century," Goldsmith continues, "the progressives championed a rule-based approach to public-sector management that was a big step forward from the cronyism and corruption of Tammany Hall. Today, however, the very rules that once enhanced accountability, transparency and efficiency now stifle the creativity of public-sector workers and reduce the ability of public investments to create opportunities for citizens—outcomes precisely the opposite of those intended by Progressive Era reformers.
"...No one wants a return to the bad old days when public employees feared arbitrary dismissals. Today, however, the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. Rather than too few rules governing public employees, there are far too many, and they hurt the very people progressive reformers cared most about: the least fortunate members of society who depend the most on effective support services."
Though I have a graduate degree in urban planning, I don't claim to have the kind of understanding, let alone insight, Goldsmith does on this subject. But, like so many people who have come in contact with public-sector bureaucracies (I'm sure we all have stories), I can only agree with Goldsmith that something has gotten out of hand. Something needs to change, I'm not sure what. It's not abandoning government altogether, as some of the more extreme voices in America suggest today, but making it work better. Many devoted public servants have tried to cut through and rationalize the complex problem of government bureaucracy, including Goldsmith. It's a difficult riddle to solve.
But, again, my point in highlighting this Op-Ed is more about the state of our public discourse. What I conclude after reading Goldsmith's analysis (I suspect he would agree, but this isn't his point) is that grand gestures like banning collective bargaining of public employee unions are misleading and clearly meant more to rally angry voters than to actually solve a very real challenge.
We need to discuss tough problems like this with the sort of civility and authority Goldsmith offers. Unfortunately, that kind of cool and courteous talk doesn't make as compelling TV as people screaming at each other at the Wisconson State Capitol.