With All Deliberate Speed

People who rely on governmental services get used to waiting.  You fill out a form and then wait for weeks, or months, or even years before the ponderous bureaucratic machinery moves forward and action is taken.

13nfnuBut even by slow governmental standards, the city of Winnipeg, Canada moves at a glacial pace.

On January 26, 1993, a city snow removal machine smashed up the curb outside the house of Calvin Hawley.  Hawley promptly made a complaint to the city, so that someone could come out to fix the curb.  The city promised repairs.  When nothing happened, he continued to call.  At one point, the city told him that its system for logging complaints had changed, and all of his prior communications about the broken curb had been lost.  But Hawley was undeterred in his campaign to cure the curb.

In 2017, when city work crews appeared on his street, Hawley thought his day had come.  Alas!  The city workers were there to fix other, more recently damaged broken curb sections.  It just added insult to injury.  So Hawley filed an electronic complaint, which allowed him to track when the repairs to the curb would move forward.

Last year, Hawley got his answer:  his curb will be repaired by June 26, 2037 — which would be more than 44 years after the city snow plow first crushed it.  44 years!  Think about that the next time you moan about having to wait in line at the BMV.

Insecure About Homeland Security

The Washington Post has an interesting, and troubling, story about the problems at the Department of Homeland Security.  According to the article, the agency is faced with tremendously low morale, high employee turnover, and a toxic bureaucratic environment.

The DHS was created after 9/11 and was supposed to unite a host of separate agencies that had some security role.  Its constituent agencies include the Customs Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Secret Service, the Transportation Security Administration, the Coast Guard, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  Coordinating the different cultures and practices of such diverse agencies would be a challenge, and the Post piece indicates that the DHS has made a hash of it, creating a highly bureaucratic environment that frustrates employees and managers.

A dysfunctional, overly bureaucratic federal agency — who could imagine such a thing?  It may be the norm, but in the case of the DHS the constant turnover, unfilled positions, and bureaucratic gamesmanship could easily have real world consequences.  The Post article notes, for example, that recent testing has shown that the blue-uniformed TSA employees at who operate all of those scanners are increasingly missing weapons or explosives being brought through security.  What is the point of spending billions for high-tech scanners at airports if the TSA employees can’t properly interpret the scanning data?  In the modern world where so many terrorist groups are looking to launch another deadly operation, we simply cannot afford security agencies who aren’t properly performing their jobs.

The TSA is only one example of a problem agency within the DHS.  Whether it is defense against cybersecurity attacks, or securing the border, or dealing with the influx of immigrant minors, the DHS is tasked with tough assignments and is widely perceived as botching them.  The plummeting morale at the DHS isn’t helping matters, either.  A survey performed last year showed that the DHS ranked dead last among large agencies.

The DHS has an important job.  With the constant threats made against America by the likes of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and al-Qaeda, you would think that effective leaders could generate energized agencies where employees understood the significance of their roles and had high morale because of the crucial nature of their work in protecting their families and friends from attack.  Instead, the DHS is a morass of infighting and leaden bureaucratic procedures that hinder effective performance.

The Post article paints an ugly picture, one that should make us all feel less secure about the Department of Homeland Security.

The Latest Government Rating System

The federal government has announced that it plans to “rate” America’s colleges and universities.  The New York Times story linked above describes the ratings push as “a radical new effort by the federal government to hold America’s 7,000 colleges and universities accountable by injecting the executive branch into the business of helping prospective students weigh collegiate pros and cons.”

IMG_0747The underlying concept is that colleges and universities receive $150 billion in federal loans and grants, so the federal government should determine whether the schools are “worth it.”  The proposed rating system would apparently be based on how many students graduate, how much debt they accumulate during their college years, and how much money they make after they graduate, among other factors. The federal rating would compete with the college guides, like that produced by U.S. News and World Report, that are all too familiar to the parents of a college-bound high school student.

College administrators are reacting with horror to the idea.  In some respects, it’s hard not to feel a certain schadenfreude when you read their outright dismissal of the idea.  For years our institutions of higher learning have been relentlessly raising their tuition and fees and administrator salaries, blithely rejecting thousands of applicants, and happily operating in their own, comfortable sphere of almost complete autonomy.  Now they’re the ones who will be judged, and they don’t like it.

But the college presidents have a point.  One Department of Education official said the rating system would be a cinch, like “rating a blender.”  Sounds like the same unfounded  bureaucratic arrogance that led to the disastrous roll-out of the healthcare.gov website, doesn’t it?  And speaking as someone who went to a land-grant school for college and a private school for a law degree, and was the parent of children who have gone to small and medium-sized private schools and a state school for college and master’s programs, I have zero confidence in the judgment of anyone who thinks that rating schools is even remotely comparable to rating an appliance.  There are far too many variables and differences, and focusing on financial issues — like how much graduates are paid — inevitably gives short shrift to the idea of getting a well-rounded liberal arts education.

More fundamentally, I am royally tired of the federal government injecting itself into every facet of American life.  The process is always the same — first the government provides money, then it says it needs to establish oversight to ensure that the money is being spent wisely. (Of course, there’s never any reconsideration of the idea of the federal government spending the money in the first place.)  We know from years of experience that if the Bureau of Federal Higher Education Rating is created, it will immediately become another calcified government program that can never be cut or terminated.

We don’t need President Obama or the federal bureaucracy dreaming up new ways to regulate and new administrative positions that need to be filled, we need them to focus on doing a better job of running the programs that already exist and figuring out how to run them more efficiently — and determining whether they are truly needed at all.  I’d give the notion of establishing a federal college rating system an “F.”

A Little Bit More On The IRS And Politics

When my friend the Biking Brewer recommends something to read, I take notice — and not just because he is accomplished at creating fine malt beverages and has a discriminating sense of Belgian ales.

The BB sent along a link to this article from Salon, entitled When the IRS targeted liberals, that seeks to add a little context to the current story about the IRS actions with respect to conservative groups.  President Obama has called the IRS actions “outrageous” and he’s right about that — but the Salon article usefully points out that the IRS has been embroiled in political issues before.

The key point here is not which groups are being targeted by the IRS, or who is the President at the time the targeting occurs, but rather the fact that IRS employees think they have the right to target specific groups at all.  Our federal government has become so colossal in size, and so removed from interaction with average citizens, that many government employees think they can do just about whatever they damn well please because they are from the government and, well, they just know better than we do.

This isn’t a political issue — or , at least, it shouldn’t be.  When agencies like the IRS can become politicized, no one at any point on the political spectrum is safe.  The question is how to change the culture of these bureaucratic leviathans, where employees have jobs for life and have little accountability to anyone who isn’t their direct line supervisor.  Shrinking the size of the bureaucracies, and establishing performance standards that don’t give every employee a lifetime job, would be a good place to start.

Our One-Cent Bill From The Great White North

Guess what?  American bureaucracies aren’t the only ones that are ridiculous.

IMG_3407Last October I went to Lake Temagami in northern Ontario, Canada for a wonderful few days of fishing.  To get there, I drove on the Express Toll Route.  Rather than simply paying the toll as you pass through, the ETR takes a picture of your car, figures out where you live, and then sends you a bill.

A few weeks after my trip ended, I received a bill.  We paid it in full.  Then, some time later, we got another bill — for four cents.  Why the four-cent differential?  I’m not sure, but I’m guessing the U.S. dollar-Canadian dollar exchange rate might be responsible.  In any case, we wrote a check for 4 cents and sent that off.  Obviously, the cost of postage and the cost of processing the check on both ends far outstripped the 4-cent payment.  But, so be it!  We are interested in maintaining friendly relations with our Neighbors to the North, and if I ever am invited back to Lake Temagami I don’t want to be hauled away as a scofflaw and tossed into debtors’ prison by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Then we received the bill above, demanding a balance due of . . . one cent.  One cent!  I’m blaming the exchange rate again, because the bottom of the bill says, under “amount paid,” “Canadian funds.”  Of course, there is no way I can write a check on my American bank for one cent, Canadian.  The letter specifically says that I can’t send cash.  And if you think I’m going to risk giving my credit card information, on-line, to bureaucrats who are trying to chase down people who have paid, in full, twice already, you’ve got another think coming.  So, my only choice is to write a check for 5 cents, American, and hope that it accounts for the exchange rate and is finally accepted as payment in full by the ETR collectors.

I’ve never really thought much about toll booths before, or fully appreciated the schmoes working inside.  Now, I do.  The next time I toss 75 cents into the collection bin, I’ll relish that I can simply drive on, free from care that I’ve just become mired forever in an endless sea of red tape.

Proposing A “Secretary Of Business” Is The Last Straw

President Obama wants to be seen as friendly to business.  He’s recently touted the idea of creating a “Secretary of Business” — a new, Cabinet-level position that would “consolidate” different federal agencies that deal with business and trade issues and create “one-stop shopping” for regulatory oversight.

This one proposal, I think, reflects President Obama’s deeply held view of the world — and why I must conclude, regrettably, that he will never truly grapple with our soaring budget deficits and federal debt, which I believe are the two most crucial problems facing our country.

In the President’s view, if business is struggling, we need to create a new government position to address the problem and shuffle existing agencies in a bureaucratic reorganization to try to “streamline” regulations.  His reflexive solution to all issues is new government positions, new government agencies, and new government initiatives.  If he needs to burnish his credentials with the business world, he thinks the proper response to to create a new government regime that shows that he cares.

President Obama has been our President for four years.  He’s seen our economy flounder, witnessed the loss of huge numbers of jobs and the departure of millions of disappointed job-seekers from the job market, watched our deficit and debt skyrocket, and heard complaints about excessive regulatory burdens, crony capitalism, and taxes stifling business investment and growth.  The fact that he nevertheless believes that he would aid business by creating a “Secretary of Business” who would help businessmen navigate through the thicket of federal regulations, and assist companies as they seek federal loans and grants and other assistance, speaks volumes about his fundamental mindset.  He’s not going to change if he’s elected to a second term.

If, like me, you believe that we need to eliminate Cabinet-level positions and federal agencies, not create them, if you believe that we need to reduce federal regulations, not hire new federal employees to assist overwhelmed businessmen in dealing with those regulations, if you believe that we need to cut spending, not maximize opportunities for people to get more federal loans and aid, how can you vote to re-elect President Obama?

On Tax Day, Remember The GSA!

All American taxpayers should be grateful this April 15, as we curse and finish our returns and contemplate how much we pay to our federal government:  we have the General Services Administration out there working for us.

You all know the GSA, of course.  Its website describes the GSA as “responsible for improving the government’s workplace by managing assets, delivering maximum value in acquisitions, preserving historic property, and implementing technology solutions.”  To translate: the GSA are the bureaucrats bureaucrats.

The GSA has been in the news lately, but not due to its selfless performance of its crucial bureaucratic mission.  No, the GSA is in the news because the agency spent $822,000 — $822,000 — on its 2010 Western Regions Conference in Las Vegas.  That included payments for upscale accommodations, commemorative coins, and $3,200 for a “mind reader,” among other indefensible expenditures.  When an Inspector General’s report uncovered the gross waste, the GSA Administrator resigned.  Now the GSA official charged with organizing the event, who has been subpoenaed to testify about the matter before Congress, has indicated he will invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.  In short, there’s not just concern about bad judgment — there’s concern that outright criminal conduct may have occurred.

If you look at the GSA website, you’ll find a video of the acting administrator of the GSA, Dan Tangherlini, soberly pledging that the GSA will adhere to the highest standards of ethics and service.  (You’ll also learn that the GSA has its own flag, which appears behind him.  Thank God for that!)  The video is a classic of buzzwords and bureaucratese — other governmental bodies are called “client agencies” and “customers,” and the response to the abuse of the Western Regions Conference talks about rules and “top-down” agency reviews.  In short, the timeless solution to abusive practices in the bureaucracy is more bureaucracy!

Forgive me if I’m not reassured that the same agency that allowed the abuse is recommitted to its end.  The only real solution to waste and abuse in government is to cut back government, period.  Does anyone really think the country would grind to a halt if the GSA budget were reduced to one-third of its current size?

As I sign and send my returns today, I’ll be thinking of the GSA and its careful stewardship of our tax dollars.  And during this campaign season, when we hear candidates for federal offices talk about how “draconian” proposed budget cuts are, and how we need to raise taxes because cutting spending is just too difficult, I’ll think “Remember the GSA!” And then I’ll vote for their opponent.