This week, elected officials here in Nevada and all around the nation will be passing batons to their successors, who will be sworn in full of ambition, zeal, and plans. Oh, how they all have so many plans to solve all of our problems. Just ask them!
The problem with plans (which, don’t get me wrong, are good to have) is that they so rarely survive contact with reality, they often fail to address the problem they purport to solve, and they sometimes actually make problems worse (“Affordable” Care Act, my left foot.)
With that in mind, here are my humble suggestions for our new politicians at all levels as they march forward to help us all (whether we want the help or not).
Remember what office you hold. Whenever we hear a local or even state politician opining or proposing policy about national or world issues beyond their realistic control, we can bet that our roads are about to get suckier and our municipal services less responsive. If illegal immigration or international non-binding climate agreements are your issues, City Council member was not the office you should have sought. Focusing on things you can’t control takes away from focusing on things you can, and everything suffers on account of it.
Aim low and think small. The biggest challenge in solving Big Problems via the government is that the solutions are generally cumbersome and expensive. Politicians tend to get used to this, start just unquestioningly accepting it and, too often, even begin to love unwieldy programs because they provide a lot of cover for graft and corruption.
Sometimes, there really are problems that only government can solve, and done correctly, governments really can and do add real value to the everyday lives of ordinary citizens. But in almost every case, A Big Plan isn’t going to solve a million individual problems — because one size doesn’t fit all. Individualized troubleshooting isn’t flashy, but it is so important to good government and maintaining citizens’ trust in that government.
Don’t spend time wooing huge companies to Nevada with complex and unpredictable tax schemes that only apply to them. Rather, make clear to individual government employees that their job is to make things easier for small businesses, not to stand guard against too many people getting their licensing paperwork done. Don’t set up state-level task forces to gaze at navels about the state of education, but have more people available to help individual students and parents who might be struggling to enroll a child.
Very often it’s not a regulatory change that’s needed, but a cultural and attitudinal shift in the agency already tasked with serving the public. And it’s about understanding that “the public” is made up of individuals who need help, not a single amorphous “mass” who exist only to annoy bureaucrats. Success should be measured by the net number of people whose everyday lives are substantively improved by a change, not the amount of money spent.
Know your projections are always too optimistic. This week the Reno Gazette-Journal published an article talking about the spectacular and utterly predictable financial fiasco that our film tax incentive program has been, especially as intertwined by the later deal which brought Tesla to Nevada. The problem came when estimates of economic activity related to local filmmaking turned out to be absurdly over-optimistic.
Every new program costs money, and a fiscal note on a bill can kill it. So what if we can say something will “pay for itself?” Sometimes that’s true – broad based tax cuts, for example, really can and do help increase revenue via the overall economic growth they help spur. But mostly, claims that a tax credit or other subsidy will “pay for itself!” are the result of wishful thinking (or dishonest projections) as to the value such and such a project will add to the community, and we see equally implausible estimates of overall costs.
Rather, lawmakers and executives should take a cynical approach to such numbers. It’s always better to under-promise and then over perform.
Walk your spaces. Every young military officer hears this on an almost daily basis. You cannot lead from the chair in your office or via emailed dictates. You have to personally observe and inspect equipment, rooms, buildings, living quarters, etc. that you’re responsible for. And you have to spend time talking with and listening to the people who work for you, seeing their work, and showing them they are valued by your personal investment in the missions they are tasked with accomplishing.
Almost every scandal that catches a public official by surprise is a result of failing to do this. Think of Gov. Sandoval’s surprise at the “squalid” living conditions for mentally ill citizens. Or the teacher morale crisis currently unfolding at the Washoe County School District.
No government program or agency will work perfectly, no matter how carefully crafted (and most aren’t very carefully crafted), especially when it’s new. The people responsible for its implementation must also understand that they are responsible for its continued inspection, maintenance, and long-term success.
Get specific early and often. Most politicians didn’t get super detailed on the campaign trial, because when you’re running for office, political opponents (and columnists) LOVE particulars to beat you over the head with, and voters are bored by them.
Get specific anyway.
The earlier a detailed policy idea is released to the public, the more time there is to inspect, debate, study, consider, and amend that idea. Remember that not everyone critical of your ideas is your enemy, and not everyone telling you things are awesome is your friend. Poorly thought out programs or regulations do real harm to everyday people, and your good intentions behind a crappy plan don’t mean squat to the victims of that carelessness.
Sometimes, close inspection reveals that your idea kind of stunk. Accept it. Improve it. Or just move on.
Outgoing Governor Brian Sandoval said recently, “There is a difference between wanting to do something and wanting to be something.” He couldn’t be more right. But all those “somethings” need to be done right, in ways which will actually improve government’s service to its people.
Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is an attorney in Reno. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.