Big Government vs. Small Government: Is That Really the Right Question?

In the greater Toledo area, Michael Beazley is a bit of a local government legend. He’s served in a variety of administrations and capacities for a career that has spanned three decades. He was recently described by the Toledo Blade as being the “most experienced public administrator in the region and the most politically savvy.”

Beazley shared with me the following observation about our drive to spread out and edouard-ki-270914.jpgexpand: “We have had roughly the same population in the metro Toledo area since 1972 – around 500,000. But this population has spread out over a dramatically larger area. About 150,000 people have moved out from the core city. We now have twice the infrastructure net costs. We have more than doubled the number of paved roads since that time. We ran twice the sewer and water lines. We have schools in the old communities; and we have built schools in the new communities. We have the same number of taxpayers to pay for it all and we wonder why the math doesn’t work.”

While Beazley has often been associated with the Democrats, the state’s Republican governor agrees. In this time of great political polarization, we increasingly need to sift through and find the principles that both sides agree on. It’s where I believe we will find many of our promising new answers.

Governor Kasich launched an initiative called Beyond Boundaries in an attempt to effectuate greater collaboration among our vast number of local governments. From the 2012 Beyond Boundaries report,

To understand the need for shared services, it was necessary to first identify the problem. As shown in the chart above, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that total government spending in Ohio was $47.8 billion in 1993 and had grown to $107.2 billion in 2009, far outpacing growth in Ohio’s population and gross state product.

Public services in Ohio are provided by more than 3,900 units of local government and public education, which are governed by more than 20,000 elected officials. Federal, state and local governments, including schools, employ more than 780,000 Ohioans – fully 13 percent of the state’s total workforce in 2011.

The size and fragmented nature of Ohio’s governmental structure creates inherent inefficiencies in service delivery to citizens and back-office functions. These inefficiencies make it more difficult for citizens and businesses to interact with government.

The report promotes the concept of shared services. This is a collaborative strategy Ohio Units of Govtdesigned to optimize public resources, such as staffing, equipment and facilities – across jurisdictions. There was legislation enacted to make it really simple to share these assets across jurisdictions, through the use of a one-page agreement (as opposed to a complex, tediously negotiated document reviewed by many lawyers).

I sat in a room with a number of local government officials in 2012 or 2013 to hear a representative from the State of Ohio’s Auditor Dave Yost detail this initiative. He also talked about, a clearinghouse of information on how to collaborate for savings, and find other ways to cut costs in local government.

A simple example was given about snow plows. When it is time to buy a new snow plow in Town A, that town should look around to the next town, Town B, and see what their fleet looks like. Perhaps instead of buying a new plow, Town A can enter into a shared services agreement with Town B to access one that is in the town next door.

I looked around the room and saw a skeptical group of township supervisors, small town mayors, city councilmen from suburban cities in our region.

Frustrated, one of them raised his hand, “But what if that means we can’t get access to a snow plow when WE need it?”

It is a good question. This elected official is held accountable by the people of his own municipality.  They aren’t necessarily going to vote for him because he engaged in cost saving shared services agreements if the roads are noticeably worse this winter.

Our Principals Can Betray Us

There’s a tension of our principles at work here that we don’t often consider.

Local freedom vs. government efficiency

Because American governance is rooted in decentralization of authority, we have a lot of government. As detailed earlier, Ohio has 3,900 units of local government, broken up into counties, cities & villages, townships, school districts and special units.  We hate government in America, but we have an absolutely gargantuan amount of it.

One of our cherished principles drives this proliferation: We like to do things our own ways in our own places.

We say we don’t want big government in our backyard, telling us what to do.  It is why we have 611 school districts in Ohio, when we have only 88 counties. (Why not 88 school districts, so we can eliminate some duplicative administration and achieve some economies of scale in procurement? – Well, that’s the desire for local control at work.) As a result of this deeply-held principle, as we have grown, we have fractured ourselves into thousands and thousands of local governments.  They all have to decide if they want to work with each other to find efficiencies. They don’t have to.

It’s not like that in all sectors.

One common refrain I hear quite a lot is, “If you just get a business guy in there, he’ll whip government into shape.” (The same thing is often said about the nonprofit sector, a topic I will cover later.) The theme is invoked by the Beyond Boundaries report: “The way governments do business needs to evolve with changing times and must be brought up to modern efficiencies. The private sector has made process improvements a priority for decades. Now is the time for governments to put aside ‘the way it has always been done’ and make way at long last for better, more modern and cost-effective alternatives.”

We have to examine that tension. We have a set of deeply held principals knocking up against another – that of hierarchical authority and business-like efficiency, which we may want at times, vs. the decentralized kind of authority that was built in to the American system of governance.  That one forms the basis of our preferences for local control.

In the snow plow example, the state may try to create incentives for this collaboration, but it’s not the same thing as a corporate CEO coming in and mandating that Department A in the company merge with Department B.  That is hierarchical authority, and it’s central to business operations.

When they drafted the Constitution, the Founding Fathers were trying to strike a more nuanced balance between centralized (federal) and decentralized authority (the states). The Founding Fathers made sure that just enough power was to be centralized in the federal government, but that most of it would be distributed outwardly.  The Tenth Amendments in the Constitution says, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”  This means that the federal government’s powers are only the ones the Constitution lists – the rest are left to the states and the people. The federal government is not a hierarchical authority over the state governments.

As an extension of this, the state governments are not exactly a hierarchical authority over the local governments either. For example, the Ohio State Constitution permits a concept called “home rule,” which allows local governments wide latitude in exercising various authorities independent of the state government.

There are many other examples of this distribution and decentralization of power in the United States, the central one being the three branches of government, which I will cover later on, but I believe it is important that we look at it from this angle first, since we don’t tend to in our public debates. I think it is increasingly important that we consider this principal. In an earlier essay, I described the increasing preference for authoritarianism in United States, and the global decline of democracies. More and more people seem to want a more centralized model of authority.  If we want to preserve and strengthen our democracy, we are going to have to start talking about this, educating our public on this, and explaining how America works.

Back to our example. There is no higher force that is going to directly compel one local government actor to collaborate with his nearby local governments, even if there is a net cost savings. So, we have to wait for them, one by one, to come around to it. If the state could compel it, it would likely be met with widespread outrage. And for good reason – many good things come from self-governance at the local level. But we typically wait for a crisis before we consider shifting our status quo. How are we to deal with the increased costs associated with the more than twice the number of paved roads, water and sewer infrastructure described by Mike Beazley earlier? It all end up being associated with one metro region, so it would make sense to think about efficiencies on a regional level.

So when we say we want efficient government, what are we really talking about?

Maybe all we mean is that when we call 911, we want the ambulance to get there fast. We must only be talking about efficiency with regard to the various, discrete hierarchically organized units that we do interact with, since we’re not having a conversation at the national level about the issues raised by this essay. If that’s the only level at which we can think, we will never really stem the growth of state and local government. Worrying about the federal government is only one part of the story.

It All Comes Back to Identity

When we talk about government, we often care more about the governments we identify with. We want to do things our own way in our own places. We don’t so much give a hoot about the town next door, even if working together would save some money overall.

We have to, at some point, begin to examine this. Our neighborhoods, our towns, our artur-pokusin-742places – they are often bound up in our identities often in significant ways. But, we often create things out of this that are not so pleasant – thousands upon thousands of local governments, government waste and excess, and even the exclusion of various groups we don’t want in our communities. I’ll get into that much more in a future essay.

With this political time we are in, it seems as if the ground is shifting beneath our feet. Various tectonic plates – of authority, of identity, are butting up against each other.

Can we bring ourselves to confront our principles and the conditions they have created, so that we can find ways to preserve those principles while mitigating their undesirable consequences?

Or will we need an earthquake first?




One response

  1. Not many earthquakes in Toledo or Lucas County. Wish we lived in a “ring of fire” might encourage us to be the “one big metro” area you talk of. We seem very insu later in our neighborhood identity, yet we don’t evendors know our neighbor’s name. Collaboration has to start really small.


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