What separates the smart from the not so smart is often the ability to see linkages the rest of us cannot see. In the public policy arena, we tend not to search out linkages, but linkages are powerful in the government setting. One of my favorite examples is the work of the Manhattan Institute in 1992. They set out to find what New York City residents thought about their quality of life. New Yorkers, never a shy bunch, gave them an earful. New Yorkers found their city to be an uncomfortable place to live.
The Manhattan Institute analysis found something profound - that ordinary people don’t like disorder in their lives, be it graffiti to crumbling sidewalks to dangerous subways. George Kelling – a Milwaukee native – understood the systemic import of what the New Yorkers were saying. Kelling put the pieces together. He saw that the acceptance of smaller disorder enables more profound disorder, including crime.
Thus was born the broken windows approach to public safety; it says a government that attends to the small stuff, e.g. broken windows, will be well on the way to stopping the more egregious things like crime. I couldn’t help but reflect on the genius of George Kelling last week when it was reported that New York City is the safest large city in America with murders down 80% since George Kelling and Rudy Giuliani teamed up.
Kelling’s work also made me think about linkages we might be missing here in Wisconsin. Our disorder is of a financial nature. Like New York of the early 1990s. Wisconsin state government is functioning, but just barely.
Wisconsin’s government is $2.7 billion in the red according to the fiscal report it recently issued. That was as of June 30, 2009 - it is undoubtedly worse by now. Governor Doyle, in his own “Mission Accomplished” moment declared, “We got the job done,” upon signing the budget. Yet that very same state budget that left a deficit of at least $2.2 billion for his successor to address. Virtually no one is surprised that our governor’s political posturing doesn’t square with reality. The public has come to expect little of its government when it comes to fiscal integrity.
The inability to produce a balanced fiscal statement is an indication that something is clearly amiss in this enterprise called state government. We are seeing instance upon instance where state government cannot run programs at the core of its responsibilities. The day care program is broken as is the child welfare program. We learn that government is doing an abysmal job of letting poor people know when they qualify for government assistance. We learn that our state’s largest school system cannot teach its children. Education, of course, is a responsibility that the State Constitution assigns to state government. The state furlough program, designed to save money, in many cases actually drives costs up. Any day now, we will discover that state government is letting some nasty people out of prison, contrary to what they have been telling us about the early release program. The list of state government’s disappointments is a long one.
State government is a business that in trouble. It has lowered its standards of accomplishment and we, the public, have in turn have lowered our expectation of what to expect from our government.
State government is in need of a radical turnaround. Perhaps the place to begin would be to get its fiscal house in order. Don’t add to the deficit, don’t use borrowed money to fund ongoing operations, don’t take money from segregated funds to prop up an ailing general fund and never spend money you do not have. These tenets seem so simple yet each has been violated repeatedly as the entire enterprise has been spiraling downward.
This led me to ponder whether the place to start state government on the road to recovery, the road to excellence, begins with getting its fiscal house in order. Maybe a government that can produce an honest balance sheet is a government that will also be serious about eliminating the disorder from the services it provides to Wisconsin citizens.
-January 11, 2010