Gov. Rick Snyder is not a guy with a lot of rhetorical flourishes. More often than not, his speeches sound like a list of topics, often with metrics thrown in for light relief.
So when he stands at the podium – as he did in last week’s State of the State speech – and starts talking about “revolutionizing how government operates” and saying “this is the time for the big vision,” you shake your head and wonder if you’re watching the wrong TV channel.
But that’s what happened when Gov. Snyder proposed “the River of Opportunity” to help people whose family has collapsed, who are poor, who don’t have skills, or who are sick or have a disability. “They need government support and nonprofit support.”
But the governor argued that if you look back over the past 80 years, you see that “we have added prescriptive program after prescriptive program.” In Michigan, we have 145 government programs already: 35 in health care, 40 in work force, 70 in child services. “What we have done is sliced and diced people into programs. We have moved away from treating them as real people.”
So Snyder wants to restructure government to get rid of the multiple silos that infest the landscape of government programs. He plans an executive order that will merge the Department of Community Health and the Department of Human Services “so we can be (do) much more one-stop shopping, really human focused, people focused.”
Well, well! Who would have thunk it? A big vision metaphor, the River of Opportunity. Merging two big departments of state government. Talking about centering government on people, rather than on separate jurisdictions.
This is not an entirely new approach. Critics of the way government works have been complaining for years that the very way government activity is denominated – by the program – is at the heart of what’s wrong with the way government works.
How bureaucracy builds
Here’s how a government program is created. Somewhere, whether Washington or Lansing, somebody introduces a bill to do something. Once passed, that bill authorizes money to be spent by a “responsible” government agency which is thereby given jurisdiction for the activity just funded. And so is created a silo government activity that inflicts money and services on defined target groups and sets up a turfed silo of money and jurisdiction that is jealously guarded by bureaucrats inside the silo.
That’s a program. People are no longer treated as whole people; instead, they are “clients”, authorized to receive specific defined “services” according to their specific needs and demographic and juridical status. And that’s a recipe for disconnected programs, fragmented service delivery, narrow and often outdated metrics measuring outcomes, and calcified programs that don’t adapt to changing circumstances.
There’s a great description of disconnected programs written by Larry Good, chairman and founder of the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce: “We have programs for trade impacted workers, veterans, those interested in specific career field, older workers, youth, Native Americans, those on welfare, those on public housing, those in blighted areas, and those with low basic skills. Each program has its own rules and its own outcome measures, political constituency and advocacy groups.”
I remember when I was the chair of the Job Training Coordinating Council that oversaw job training in Michigan during the 1980’s. Michigan was experienced a big recession, and there were fervent calls from all sides for more money to be spent on job training. I demanded an inventory of job training programs operating in Michigan. Turns out we had 70-odd such programs operating in Michigan, with administrative responsibility spread among nine separate departments of state government. We didn’t have a money problem; we had a management program.
So in his speech Gov. Snyder is tackling a big, historic problem lurking at the core of popular and political discontent with the way government works. He’s doing it in an important way that is consistent with an enormous body of sharp criticism, keen analysis and far-reaching suggestions for improvements in the ways government works that go back more than 40 years.
Cynics will, of course, abound. One commented during the governor’s speech: “Well, I suppose if you don’t have anything particularly worthwhile to propose, you might as well come out for re-jiggering the structure of government.”
Fair enough. But Gov. Snyder is pushing into an absolutely core issue, and he’s going at it in absolutely the right way. He deserves praise for his “big vision” and for time and patience in making it work.