Saturday, July 11, 2020

A Crisis in Public Management

What is the common thread between the US SARS-Cov2 crisis and the Black Lives Matter movement? Dysfunctional public management.

It is curious how the George Floyd crisis came up during the Covid 19 pandemic. Were people a little stir-crazy? Perhaps. Were people fed up with the callous culture war being waged from the White House? Definitely. But I think there is more to connect these crises- deep problems in American public management. Our problem with the pandemic speaks for itself. While many other countries, large and small, have eradicated this virus and proceeded to re-open their economies, (Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, China, Taiwan, to name a few), we obviously have not, and continue to lead the world in new cases, day in and day out. What is wrong?

I think the main thing that is wrong is that our public health officials do not know what they are doing, and do not even conceive of the problem correctly. Their ambition has been to flatten the curve to reduce hospital congestion. This sentences us to, at best, a continous slow burn of viral cases, spiraling up when people get too careless, and quieting down after lockdown rules are re-instituted. It is clear that public officials completely lacked the ambition to fully contain and eradicate the virus. Doing that would require mobilizing an army of contact tracing and containment deputies, and enforcing quarantines on traced contacts, possibly with phone-based apps. We in Northern California had an ideal opportunity during the April-May time frame to fully control the virus. But did we? Not at all. The public officials contented themselves with testing and publicizing the daily trickle of cases, and having the police close public parks and other venues of congregation. Never was eradication even in the conversation, nor the appropriate powers and staff contemplated, as far as I can tell. Then, when the economic cost of even these half-hearted lockdown and distancing measures became too much, we re-opened, with the natural result of a rising tide of cases.

By not even conceiving that they should and could mount a total eradication campaign, our officials, from the local to the national levels, gave up before the game even began. And why was there this complete lack of ambition? First, we have not been used to this kind of disciplined, society-wide activity. Our social, not to mention political, system, is so atomized and uncohesive, dedicated to individualism, that an actually effective Chinese-style lockdown seems to have been inconceivable. But still, Canada has managed it at least partially- our closest neighbors, geographically and culturally.

Another obvious issue is the lack of a coherent health care system. The public health portion of it is an atrophied vestige, devoted more to bureaucratic stasis and policy quibbling than to actual intervention, uncertain whether it is a safety net for the poor, or a guardian for everyone. Higher officials should have realized that the given infrastructure would be and remains completely unable to mount the effort needed- which is thorough testing, contact tracing, and enforced isolation of contacts. A new organizational infrastructure needed to be built immediately, which was done in other countries, but not here. This is an obvious failure of public management, both in imagination and in execution.

In China, green means go.

Just as the pandemic shines a ghastly light on our public health organizations, the death of George Floyd, and the many prior cases of brutality and murder shines a similar light on another sector of public management- the police. Most police do great work in difficult conditions. Problems arise from a (large) sub-culture of callous disregard, inherited from Jim Crow and other authoritarian elements, combined with weak public management. One issue is unionization. Public employee unions have been toying with the electoral system for decades, running influential campaign ads and altering local elections and public policy to suit their interests. No wonder that we now have a public pensions crisis, absurdly early retirements, double dipping, secrecy for key records, and a litany of other abuses of the public purse and trust. Policies that make it virtually impossible to fire public employees are only one part of the problem, but one that is most central to the George Floyd case. Unlike the situation in public health, the rogue policemen are overzealous, rather than under-zealous. But the management issue is similar- who runs these organizations, do they have the full public interest in mind, whom do they serve, and do they have effective control over their employees? Answers to these questions are not pretty.

We are faced with two brands of corruption when it comes to public management. One is the Republican brand, which hardly cares about the public interest at all, only private interests. Anything they can do to drown the govm'nt in the bathtub, and allow natural feudalism to reign, giving social and economic power to the powerful, is OK with them. This means supporting white power and a traditional racial hierarchy, attracts sympathetic authoritarian types to police forces, and then winks at their indiscretions in enforcing the "natural" order.

The other is the Democratic brand, which cares so much about public service that it gladly ties itself up in knots of bureaucracy and procedure (and pensions, and consultants, and politically correct meetings, due process, and translators, and environmental review, and...) ending up incapable of accomplishing anything, or holding anyone to account. The Democratic brand is also pro-union, adding a whole other level of dysfunction and mismanagement to an already difficult situation. To bring in yet another example, the California high speed rail project is an object lesson in this style. Tens of billions of dollars have been poured down a bureaucracy dedicated to good pensions, due process, poor land acquisition practices, and continual underestimation of the fiasco they are participating in. The expected path of this train now looks more like an amusement park ride than a bullet train, and will only go from Los Angeles to somewhere in the central valley. As a citizen, it is incredibly frustrating to watch this waste and ineffectiveness.

The countries that have been most successful against Covid-19 have been the most cohesive societies, either by nature or by authoritarian force. Cohesiveness correlates with good public management, since it represents shared objectives and understandings about values and ways of doing things. Cohesiveness helps smooth the way between ideals and implementation. The US stands, clearly, as one of the least cohesive societies in the world, particularly after the trauma of the current administration. Is there strength in diversity? Up to a point. But there is more strength in unity.