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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Sober Thinking for the End of the Year

One of our readers sent me a link to a great article. It was in this publication called City Journal which I had never heard of but now will make a point to read. The article I liked is by William Voegeli called How the Road to Bell Was Paved.

Some of you may remember the story that exposed how the leadership of Bell, California (a suburb near LA of 37,000 most minority citizens) was ripping off the city to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars with exaggerated pay for the city manager and other staff. (The city manager was making $787k+ a year.) So Bell has become a poster child for mismanagement in government. But Mr. Voegeli expands this idea out.

The abuse of power, after all, is an endemic political problem, one so old that it’s often rendered in Juvenal’s Latin: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will guard the guardians themselves?

America’s answer to that question made its republic distinctively successful. If ambition could be made to counteract ambition, in James Madison’s formulation, then the guardians would guard one another, which was why Madison’s Constitution incorporated checks and balances. Madison saw these, however, as especially vital to the success of a distant national government, expecting that Americans would pay careful attention to the conduct of their own state and local governments. That’s exactly what Alexis de Tocqueville found during his trip through America 40 years later: “Municipal institutions constitute the strength of free nations. Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and how to enjoy it.”

But of course the question becomes are we watching? I have said before that I believe that most people want to believe in our government entities. If we don't, we will fail as a society. But even with checks and balances and auditors, we still see that the basic duty of a citizen - to ask questions - is still important.

Mr Voegeli talks about how the U.S. has changed since Tocqueville came for a visit. Urbanization, immigration and everyone crowded together just trying to keep food on the table. This in turn gave rise to the "professional" government.

Consider, in this light, Louis Brownlow, best known as the principal figure in the commission that President Roosevelt named in 1936—the Brownlow Committee—to reorganize the federal bureaucracy. Two years earlier, Brownlow had already weighed in on professionalization at the city level, welcoming changes that rendered municipal government “less legalistic, less partisan, and more technical.” Thus, he said, “let whoever will be mayor, but the bacteriologist in the health department, the chemist in the water department, the superintendent of schools and his teachers, the nurses in the city hospital—these must be technicians.”

So what's the problem?

The very word “professional” points us to the great problem with the professionalization of government: though it can refer to a person with extensive training and expertise, it also distinguishes, from “amateur,” a person who performs activities for a living—for money. In the geography of public administration, a slippery slope separates the idealistic and rigorous from the self-serving. The calling begets a guild, which turns into a mutual protection society and winds up a racket.

Back in California, the struggles of two public-administration students interning with a city council candidate in Orange County suggest the existence of related abuses in the state, less extreme but more common than Bell’s. According to Fred Smoller, the Brandman University professor directing the students’ program, it took them “nearly four months and hundreds of hours of work” to complete what should have been a simple project: gathering data on how much local city managers were paid. “While several cities cooperated, many others gave the students the runaround,” says Smoller. “Two cities charged for access to this information. Two others said that the public was not entitled to know the details of city-official compensation packages.” Several local officials, according to Smoller and the city council candidate, threatened the professor and his students, saying that publicizing the salary information would be a bad career move.

Incredibly dangerous stuff. And then we wonder why people like Julian Assange feel it their duty to release protected documents. (For the record, I do not agree with what he did. Some of this is just embarrassing information but some of it could be very dangerous to those who serve in the overseas.)

Mr. Voegli also points out that the leadership of Bell, California knew who their citizens were. More than half were foreign-born and nearly two-thirds without a high school diploma.

Perhaps its residents were as vulnerable to Rizzo’s exploitation as Manhattan tenement dwellers once were to Boss Tweed’s. Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton accused the Rizzo gang of “ripping off vulnerable, uninformed taxpayers in one of the county’s poorest cities, exploiting their public trust and, sadly, apathy.” A crucial point on the road to the scandal was a 2005 special election in which residents voted to make Bell’s local government exempt from state laws on municipal compensation. The turnout in that election was fewer than 400 people—less than 5 percent of Bell’s registered voters.

But beyond who the citizens are who live in Bell is the issue that we, as a country, have really splintered our lives.

Apathy isn’t confined to poor or immigrant communities. Indeed, the word “community” is increasingly used, contrary to the term’s long history, to denote people who attend to things they have in common other than the affairs of the particular geographic location where they reside. Our time, attention, and affinities are not limitless, so as we increasingly concern ourselves with the environmentalist community, the bluegrass-music community, or the office-supplies wholesalers’ community, we have less left over for the patch-on-the-map communities where we live. Our waking hours are enveloped by communications technologies that Madison and Tocqueville couldn’t have imagined; we are a polity turned inside-out, familiar with the distant and estranged from the nearby. Americans are likelier to know the names of the president’s pets than to know those of their own city council members.

He points out that we hope the media is watching. But our newspapers, who in the past did a large amount of investigative reporting, are now shrinking. There is "information" on the Internet that many people read as gospel without even wondering who wrote it and what research they did.

(Side note: I hope our schools are teaching kids this history and to be wary and ask questions before they believe anything they read on the Internet.)

Many educators, public safety and health officials, and administrators are professionals in the best sense, motivated by a sense of duty and a desire to serve the public honorably. In the absence of an avalanche of stories about other Bells, we can hope that only a small minority are professionals in the worst, most rapacious, sense of the term.

There’s a group in the middle, however. They may employ their professional training and specialized technical knowledge to solve problems, but they’re not above using such know-how to stifle criticism or impede scrutiny. Having chosen careers devoted to the public welfare, they lose the ability to distinguish what’s good for the public from what’s good for their own careers. They’re not necessarily cynical when they insist that it’s for the sake of schoolchildren that teachers must receive virtually automatic tenure after three years on the job. They may mean it when they say that the public sector cannot attract and retain the personnel it needs without offering health, retirement, and job-security benefits found nowhere else in the American economy. But being sincere isn’t the same as being right.

I love that sentence - But being sincere isn't the same as being right. It's true and it begs a question - What is being right? Is it being factual? Is it drawing together facts and making a reasonable assertion based on analysis? Or is it constantly shaping a message to reflect "being right"?

He ends the article this way:

The problem of power is inherently a political rather than a technical one. To survive, self-government requires citizens who understand that their rights are never finally secure and that their civic duties can never be safely delegated.

I absolutely agree with that belief. It really is about people in power making decisions to help themselves, their careers or their beliefs about how the world should operate. We have to keep watch over our government, not because we don't trust those people but we have a duty to make sure they are doing what they are elected or appointed to do.

It is sobering to think about this issue. It weighs heavily on me (and I know for Charlie as well) that we at this blog make the biggest effort to get it right (at least on the reporting). That's why there IS a need for watchdogs in our country.

4 comments:

Charlie Mas said...

This is a continuing problem across all levels of representation: local, county, state, federal, and even corporate. Think of the corporate Boards who don't hesitate to provide excessive compensation to "C" level officers or the mutual fund trustees who never give the fund managers any pushback at all. Think of the regulatory agencies that are staffed by folks from the industry they are supposed to regulate (yes, I'm looking at you, Treasury Department).

I have already bemoaned School Board Directors who change from representing the public in the District to representing the District to the public. I think Director Carr honestly meant to go down to the JSCEE and tell them what the people want, but instead she now comes from the JSCEE and explains what the staff has decided to her constituents.

Do they (and others) start out intending to serve special interests or their own interests instead of the public's interests, or do they get co-opted by a bureaucratic culture that puts its own interests ahead of all others?

What can be done to control the growth of bureaucracies and their sense of entitlement? That control is supposed to come from the independent board, but the board is staffed by amateurs who are easily led about by the professional staff.

Our current superintendent is paid $264,000 a year. That's about $100,000 more than the man she replaced just three years ago. When her salary was approved the staff claimed that it was comensurate with what superintendents at similarly sized urban districts were paid, but they never shared any data to support that claim and it was later found to be completely untrue.

dan dempsey said...

Charlie,

You neglected to mention the raise from $240,000 to $264,000 after one year, which was supposedly based on accomplishments.

I believe the current structure of the district has a great deal to do with the stunning lack of both progress and accountability. This district needs to be decentralized for many reasons. Do not look for those in high paid positions to make such a recommendation.

In 2008-2009 Central Admin spending was $1122/student. What did we get?

There were districts spending less than $500/student in that year. Over a four year period SPS spending on Central Admin went up 67% while spending on teaching went up 28%. MGJ came during that time.

After studying the history of the SPS's evolution into being a giant unresponsive money pit, I fail to see how different boards or different Superintendents have done much other than to inflate centralized spending and increase centralized confusion.

$500 is 45% of $1122.
The District needs to be Decentralized, which will take a while to do correctly. Since when has much of anything been done correctly by this crew? See my point about the need.

Decentralization would greatly reduce the size of Central Admin. I think realistically 65% of Central Admin expenditures could be eliminated. This money would need to be moved to schools to carry out some of those Central Admin functions but many of central admin programs could be completely eliminated.

Note a 65% shift would have moved $33.5 million to schools.

Anyway I have some of those ideas in the following Ed News article ==> Disproportionality and Discipline in Seattle.

If we wish to do something different than follow the road to Bell {as in Hell} a plan needs to be put into action.

Looking at OSPI and SBE it is hard to see that their advice has been worth much. OSPI had an enormous growth in positions over the last 15 years.

Your point about Director Carr essentially morphing into a public relations person to explain Central Admin decisions hardly signals much hope for any future meaningful control of the current Money Pit known as the SPS.


----

I am really hacked off at nothing positive from SEI; but more than that no evaluation of SEI.

SEI was the pilot for the NSAP in that it was to show more funding could produce quality schools, but it failed.

Meanwhile if you read the 88 slide PowerPoint from MGJ of Dec 15, 2010. It is perfectly clear she said there would be annual evaluations of the SEI and a summative evaluation after the full 3-years. It is just as clear from the slides that we got NADA .. NOTHING .. ZERO.

So what is the response from the Directors ?
.... well let's see
after SEI year 1 .. nothing
SEI year 2 .. nothing
SEI .. year 3 .....
Hey did they even notice SEI ended on August 31, 2010 ... because clearly from this PowerPoint MGJ did not notice.

Anyone care to initiate a discussion on Decentralization?

----------

Let us not forget that funding Cleveland STEM requires so much money that carryover funds from 31 low-income schools went to CHS as part of the NSAP debacle ..... Every school a quality school is not even a quality fairy-tale <== These folks can't even lie very well.

NSAP with decentralization can make some sense; without it => separate and even greater inequality between schools.
But what else could we expect from this crew?

dan dempsey said...

Really ....

"Sober Thinking for the End of the Year"

should include some thinking about Decentralization.

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