Thursday, June 13, 2024

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The self-fulfilling momentum of bureaucracy

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We acknowledge that the “budget season” is a frustrating one for us to follow.

Every factor in local government – both at the county level and in each municipality – is weighted toward more spending, more programs, more bureaucratic bloat. . . and the resulting higher taxes that follow.

Too often forgotten in this equation is the taxpayer who is expected to foot the bill for every bureaucrat’s favorite program or idea.

The proliferation of bureaucracy can be seen in many examples, but one illustration is the number of “assistants” who seem to multiply faster than rabbits in some local governments.

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It was just a few years ago, under the auspices of former county manager Craig Honeycutt, that the top echelon of Alamance County’s government consisted of one county manager and one assistant. Now there are four – the county manager, a deputy county manager, and a pair of assistant county managers.

Burlington, the county’s largest city, didn’t have any assistant managers up through the tenure of former city manager Harold Owen, who retired in 2015.  But once Owen retired, the number jumped from zero to two – not counting the water resources director, who has been elevated to a “rank” that, in essence places him the same ttier as the two assistant city managers.

And this tendency to expand isn’t limited to the top brass.

A week ago, for instance, Burlington’s city council heard a presentation from a new, ostensibly part-time employee, former Elon alderman Davis Montgomery, who is now tasked with the job of capital projects manager for the city – the second such functionary on Burlington’s payroll since the city continues to employ another part-time staff member with the same title.

But what became clear as Montgomery made his inaugural presentation, concerning a plan to expand the city’s tennis and pickleball facilities at a cost of $5.5 million – is that his capital projects job is not merely to manage existing endeavors, but rather to dream up new ones.

This was simply the latest example of the inherent tendency that bureaucracies have to expand.

There are many motivations for this metastasis. Unfortunately, one of the most common is to enlarge the sphere of influence of individual bureaucrats. The more people, or programs, they reign over, the higher up the bureaucracy ladder they climb – and the more money they inevitably make (at taxpayer expense, of course).

In a few instances, there is at least ostensibly an objective to  providing some new service.  But, as we’ve noted before, particularly with respect to recreation programs, the tendency is to abandon the most popular or widely-used programs in favor of numerous specialty, or niche, fads serving smaller and smaller subgroups of the population.  And, as we discussed in Burlington’s case, sometimes the purpose isn’t even to provide service to residents, but rather to “make money” through tournaments and other events that attract visitors from afar, as imaginary as they may be.

For taxpayers, it’s a losing game of whack-a-mole.  Just as soon as one worthless, unnecessary program is scotched, another pops up… and then another. . . and another.

There’s no one in local government who is charged to fight this trend.

But there are plenty of bureaucrats with “ideas” – no matter how crazy – who have no qualms about using tax money to hire “consultants” who peddle nutty ideas to gullible local government officials.  Then, in an endless cycle, one city’s foolish project becomes the envy of other communities – and it’s merely a matter of time before Burlington, or Mebane, or some other jurisdiction, follows suit.

At one time, in the 1970’s, then-President Jimmy Carter floated the idea of “Zero-based Budgeting,” which certainly seemed like a sound concept.

The idea was that rather than just taking last year’s spending as the baseline for the next year’s budget – and augmenting it with more spending, more bureaucrats, etc. – government agencies and departments were supposed to “start from scratch,” instead justifying all of their expenditures, people, and programs each budget year.

It sounded good, but Carter ran into the same problem most presidents do.  In Washington, the “permanent bureaucracy,” which later President Donald Trump would label “The Swamp,” doesn’t want “new ways” to do things.  And it certainly doesn’t want to have to justify everything it’s already doing.  Each bureaucrat’s job, and each agency’s role, is supposed to be taken as a given.  A basic or essential service, vital to the nation…blah, blah, blah.

During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, another good check on the bureaucracy was devised in the form of the Grace Commission, named for its chairman, Peter Grace. Formally, known as the President’s Private Sector Survey on Cost Control, the commission worked to identify excesses and waste in government.

Unfortunately, it was usually left to Congress to remedy the problems that the commission found.  But Congress had often created the overlaps, duplication, and excesses in the first place – so the motivation for change was all uphill.

In January 1984, Grace presented the final results of the commission’s labors – 2,478 recommendations that were estimated to save $424 billion over a three-year period if implemented – to President Reagan.

Many of these recommendations were ignored – either by the agencies affected, or by the congressional committees that had jurisdiction over the government agencies.  Still, there were some recommendations that were taken seriously – and some were adopted.

Grace was a dynamic private-sector businessman, a decisive entrepreneur unaccustomed to the glacial pace of federal bureaucrats, and of Congress.

We think local governments need some combination of “zero-based budgeting” and private sector oversight – perhaps a smaller, localized version of the Grace Commission, which could make recommendations to improve efficiency in local government.

To some extent, local elected officials could provide this same sort of oversight.  But, in practice, even elected officials who start out as reformers are often smitten and then co-opted by the bureaucrats they originally intended to rein in.

In Washington, at least, there are several other inherent checks and balances that have some impact not available at the local level.

The General Accountability Office (GAO), for instance, is an investigative arm of Congress that assesses various programs to ensure that they are being operated as intended.

Within each of the major government departments, there is also an Office of Inspector General (OIG), whose investigations often focus on the most outlandish instances of waste and fraud.

Both the GAO and the OIG are ostensibly independent from the management of the agencies they’re overseeing.

But at the local level – there are no GAOs, OIGs, or Grace Commissions to oversee government.  We encourage local leaders to find ways to fill this void and balance the scales of the ever-expanding local bureaucracies with some form of accountability and oversight.

Taxpayers deserve relief.

Or at least a measure of balance.

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