Governance reform is a seductive idea because it is usually presented as a silver bullet for addressing a policy problem. For example, if the elected school board does not provide students with an adequate education, let’s replace it with one that will.
If only it was that simple. The inconvenient fact is that a school board does not educate pupils, teachers do. A school board governance change alone will not turn Milwaukee schools around.
The same is true for other local governments. The actual delivery of services is performed by street level bureaucrats that go about their duties regardless of who happens to be in charge of the City or County.
But this does not mean governance is irrelevant. Governance, whether it is the setting of specific policies or merely the setting of an organizational culture, can be the difference between creating an environment where an organization can thrive, or one where mediocrity is the ceiling.
Discussions of governance reforms should begin with two questions:
1) Is there a structural flaw or barrier preventing street-level bureaucrats from performing their duties adequately?
2) Is there an alternative governance structure that removes the barrier without disenfranchising voters?
Dan Cody, President of the Park People of Milwaukee County presents a decent case today for moving the administration of Milwaukee Parks out of country government. He presents evidence that the Milwaukee County Parks System is losing ground compared to other systems nationally. He then identifies a structural problem; arguing that placing parks in the same budget as state mandated services, which the county cannot cut, puts parks funding at a perpetual disadvantage.
“It’s time we free our parks from Milwaukee County control so they don’t have to compete for funding with state mandated services, residents can be more closely involved in their success and we can finally start addressing the problems our parks face instead of kicking the can down the road until the next election.”
It certainly satisfies my first question. As to my second, Cody notes that a dedicated funding source (sales tax) was supported by Milwaukee County voters in a 2008 advisory referendum.
I think Cody may be on to something, as structured the Milwaukee County Parks System faces some serious barriers to success. Parks are a great example of an asset that can make-or-break the quality of life of a place. If a Parks Commission is an economical way to improve the City, it bears continued discussion.