Reinventing Government: The Next Governor

December 4, 2005

Andrea Neal column for Oct. 5 and thereafter
720 words

(Editors: This is the first of three columns focusing on issues in the governor’s race. The next two will concern education reform and capitalizing on Indiana as the crossroads of America).

INDIANAPOLIS – The author Javier Salcedo said, "Bureaucracy is the art of making the possible impossible." In Indiana, we’ve experienced a more sobering truth: Bureaucracy is the art of making the illegal possible.

Bureaucracy, not properly checked, nurtures corruption. How else do we explain a series of seemingly unrelated examples that have plagued Indiana government in recent years?

With the gubernatorial election one month away, both major party candidates have made state-government reform a lynchpin of their campaigns. On Sept. 27, Gov. Joe Kernan and running mate Kathy Davis announced the Peak Performance Project, an effort to reorganize the state’s 74 agencies under nine cabinet positions reporting to the governor.

Kernan says he hopes the proposal will not only save money and reduce duplication of services, but make government more responsive to its customers.

Since launching his campaign two years ago, Republican Mitch Daniels has repeatedly pointed to systemic weaknesses in the agencies that interact most intimately with Hoosiers, chief among them the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and Family and Social Services Administration.

"If ever a state’s government needed overhaul, reform, modernization, it’s this one," says Daniels. " We’re years behind other states."

The timing of Kernan’s plan is politically motivated, for sure, but there’s no disputing the merits of government restructuring by either party.

That wasn’t so obvious in 1996 when Indianapolis Mayor Steve Goldsmith, a guru of "reinventing government" philosophy, ran against Frank O’Bannon and lost badly.

If anything, Goldsmith alienated change-wary Hoosiers by suggesting the need to blow up one agency -– child protection services — and start from scratch.

I asked both Kernan and Daniels if they would be willing to blow up an agency should the need for such drastic action be clear.

"I don’t use terms like blow up," Daniels said, emphasizing that he would come to state government with the understanding that current state employees are capable people who would be full partners in reform.

Kernan said his Peak Performance plan doesn’t blow anything up, but does guarantee substantive reform, not just tweaking around the edges. Lt. Gov. Davis, in announcing the Peak Performance plan, put it this way: "This has been more than just an effort to kick the tires."

Indiana is desperately in need of systemic change that goes beyond tire-kicking.

Bureaucracy, by nature, is unproductive. Because it lacks marketplace incentives and rewards, it can’t respond to customer demands as do businesses in the private sector.

Without diligent oversight from its shareholders, it can also become corrupt. That oversight can come from the news media, from watchdog groups, from the political party out of power, or from internal mechanisms that exist within government to monitor fraud and waste. But there must be oversight to deter misconduct.

If elected, Daniels says he would name an inspector general to provide more oversight. Likewise, Kernan says he would appoint an independent auditor.

Ultimately it’s not the size of the bureaucracy, but the accountability procedures — or lack thereof — that lead to the kind of fraud that has plagued state government.

"Theoretically it might be easier for a felon to hide in a larger monstrosity," says Daniels. "But we’ve seen monies stolen and scandal in very small agencies, too. I think that’s much more a matter of effective oversight, of clear expectations."

Job description for the next governor: Must be willing to provide effective oversight of government agencies and clear expectations for state employees.

(Next week: The next governor’s role in education.)

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