Mass. Methods Overdue for Makeover

Originally printed in The Boston Herald

May 19, 2003
Charles Euchner (Executive Director, Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston)

In 1975, during the depths of New York's fiscal crisis, only a total makeover of city-state and business-labor relationships averted an economic catastrophe and court takeover of the city. A group of overseers known as Big Mac stabilized the city's finances. Eventually, the city took on major new initiatives in housing, economic development, crime and municipal governance.
Today, confronted with an historic economic crisis, Massachusetts lawmakers have an advantage over their counterparts in New York. The financial and social underpinnings of our economy are stronger than those that existed in the Empire State a generation ago.
Consider: Massachusetts has experienced two major economic booms in as many decades. Our state and city are magnets for international visitors. Academic, research and cultural institutions continue to thrive. The financial services industry has provided a solid foundation for the future growth of downtown Boston. The cleanup of Boston Harbor, the completion of the Big Dig and strong environmental policies are improving the region's quality of life. Crime is down. Education reform is bearing fruit. Despite the budget deficit, the state provides more money to cities and towns than ever before.
Given these positive realities, it is understandable that some decision-makers oppose fundamental change even while acknowledging the need for painful budget cuts. The down economy will swing up again, and those who counseled us to just ride out the hard times without reform will feel vindicated. But we have an opportunity now to choose another, better alternative, one that will produce some real gain in the way state government is run. This is the alternative: Streamline and simplify the regulatory and operational tangles that make it so difficult to effect real change in the commonwealth.
As Gov. Mitt Romney and the Legislature discuss government waste and inefficiency in terms of dollars and cents, it is instructive to simply do the math: If we're saying we can't find $1 billion in efficiencies, we're saying we can't find waste comprising only 5 percent of the budget. That makes no sense. Surely, no one thinks state and local agencies operate at near-peak efficiency.
Waste is hard to find because it is deeply embedded in the mundane ways our state does business - laborious permitting processes, complicated inspectional regulations, voluminous school- building regulations. The laudable ends of policy get jammed when the regulatory means take primacy. These regulatory tangles don't just put sand in the government's gears; they jam the gears of the private sector as well.
What is the best way for the state to provide basic and oversight programs? To begin with, we need the capacity to follow the money to know how all departments in state and local government spend money. We need to know about absenteeism and overtime. We need to know where and how services are being provided. We need to map geographic and population patterns to better target resources. We need to coordinate the like activities of different agencies. We need to know when to push harder, and when to get out of the way.
Sometimes, better management systems are not enough. Sometimes, we need to let go of the tangle of regulations and let service providers develop their own best approaches. Charter schools have been able to educate children from all backgrounds. If we could find a way to reduce the regulatory burdens on all schools while at the same time tracking progress better, we could create a strong education system across the board.
The ultimate dilemma of governance in Massachusetts is that we lack the urgency that drives other states. We have such a strong foundation that we don't take bold steps to modernize our systems. We are left with a Janus-faced system, one face cutting-edge and the other clunky and backward.
In a time of fiscal crisis, governments turn increasingly to the private and nonprofit sectors for help. And the region has a network of social organizations - churches, foundations, health centers, nonprofit housing developers - that responds well to crisis. But these groups cannot be expected to carry too much of our social burden.
If we were to take the steps needed to streamline government, install good real-time information database systems and strip away the rat's nest of regulations in key areas, we can do more with less.