Part 4a: Decentralized into Chaos: The Three Causes of Civic Fractionation (#1)

Part 4a  – An Introductory Essay Series (Click here to start at the beginning!)

ffThe current fractured state of American public affairs does not come have its origins in governmental incompetence or maliciousness.

A lot of the service delivery chaos and public confusion we experience in the public sector can be attributed to these guys:

 

Some of the deeply-rooted principles and beliefs of American government have unintended consequences.  The principals are not problematic in themselves. In fact, they are incredibly important to our way of life. It’s just time that we look at their operation with some nuance and care, so that we can evolve our institutions to deal with their consequences effectively. Because right now, we are largely not dealing with their consequences at all.

The principals I am talking about include:

Decentralization of authority.

Preference for local control.

The United States government is designed to be decentralized. The Founding Fathers designed our system of governance so that power would be difficult to concentrate in any single individual, branch or hierarchy.  Power that could be centralized in an efficient, hierarchical manner was what they were getting away from, after all.  The Founding Fathers were casting off a divine right monarchy, for crying out loud!

What we have developed out of their original vision is a highly complex distribution of power and function at state, local and federal levels of government. In addition, many key functions of government are outsourced to nonprofit organizations and private companies. The current level of complexity renders our ability to have meaningful conversations about how we share, manage and distribute resources in this country difficult, if not impossible at times.  I attribute this to three key reasons, detailed below:

  1. Low Public Knowledge of Government
  2. An Overlooked Source of Government Waste
  3. An Outsize Role for Nongovernmental Organizations in Service Delivery

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Low Public Knowledge of Government

Many public polls related to civics reveal worrying findings,[1] such as the exceedingly low numbers of people who can name the three branches of government (26% according to a 2016 Annenberg Public Policy Center poll).[2]  While many Americans have strong opinions about issues such as defense spending or public entitlements, most have very little idea of how that federal spending is distributed.   According to the Pew Research Center, only 39% of the public knows that the federal government spends more on national defense than on education, Medicare or interest on the national debt. [3]

Quiz yourself on current events and government, and see how you do here: http://www.pewresearch.org/quiz/the-news-iq-quiz/

And there are deeper questions that the polls do not often ask. How many understand fundamental principles about how the federal, state, local, and the associations, private philanthropy and nonprofits, fit together to get things done? How many Americans understand the federalist system?  How many possess knowledge about how public funding at the various levels of government, and private funding, such as philanthropy and charitable distributions, ebb and flow in their own communities? For example, how often do we quiz individuals in Toledo, Ohio about their knowledge of how the federal Community Development Block Grant funding is distributed in the City of Toledo?  Would they take an interest in it if they knew how it was deployed? Would those who would like federal funding programs like this to be cut be prepared to help raise private, charitable dollars to replace them? Do they have any idea of the scale?

It is reasonable to infer that the levels of public understanding of these deeper dynamics is even lower.

This is not just the fault of an ignorant electorate.

The manner of distribution of public and private resources deployed for the common good, is incredibly complicated. Resources flow in intricate ways, from the federal government to the state and local units and back up again, but the path they travel is far from straightforward.  You can’t easily go to Google and figure out answers to these questions.

It is time we ask: Is our system understandable? Do our governmental institutions prioritize understandability? If they did, how different might they look and how might we educate our electorate to interact with them effectively?

Those who argue that government has been overtaken by elites are not wrong. Without a guide, one needs to specialize in government, devoting many hours of learning, in order to decipher how it all works. Typically, those who know how it all works only do so because it is tied to their profession.  They may work in government, serve as an elected official, or are employed in a role that requires them to understand public policy, such as journalism or nonprofits – even so, they only typically understand a narrow portion.

The new populism sweeping the states can, in some part, be ascribed to government’s inability to manage its complexity and its growth, which I will get into in the next subsection, Part 4b.

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[1] http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/human-development-report-2014 at 159.

[1] Americans Bomb Pew Test of Basic Political Knowledge, Nick Gass, Politico (April 28, 2015), available at https://www.politico.com/story/2015/04/pew-news-iq-test-results-117421

[2] Annenburg Public Policy Center, 2016 poll, available at https://www.annenburgpublicpolicycenter.org/americans-knowledge-of-the-branches-of-government-is-declining

[3] Public Knows Basic Facts about Politics, Economics, But Struggles with Specifics (November 18, 2015), Pew Research Center, available at http://www.pewresearch.org/2010/11/18/public-knows-basic-facts-about-politics-economics-but-struggles-with-specifics/

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