State Messes, Fads, and Accountability

March, 2021

Lincoln – For a person like me, who worked several years in the Nebraska State Capitol trying to provide efficient, honest, scandal-free state government, the headlines of late have been saddening.

An Omaha World-Herald headline put it this way: "Government Waste Continues to Mount." The newspaper went on to describe procurement lapses in the Department of Administrative Services (DAS) that "wound up wasting enormous sums of money."

A Lincoln Journal-Star headline offered a different example, referring to DAS accounting: "Auditor Cites $21 Billion in Errors."  

And DAS is not the only state agency not meeting its responsibilities, as pointed out by a leading Omaha citizen in her op-ed about the regulatory failures that have resulted in a dangerous public health crisis in Mead: "Nebraska's 'Flint Moment' Has Arrived."

What kind of state government culture leads to such low expectations and shoddy performance by its key agencies?   I went on the DAS webpage to look for answers.  I once led the department so I know something about it.  

Compared to my years at DAS, there are now several senior positions with job titles that suggest the agency has succumbed to management fads rather than tending to business.  The mission statement of the department is a muddle, quite untethered to the department's statutory authorization and purpose.

Most disconcerting — and amusing were the problems not so serious — is the adoption of a management fad that ranks number one in a rundown of "the eight stupidest management fads of all time."   If you have ever worked in a bureaucracy, you know this to be all too true:

"Into the life of every office worker, some rain must fall... and often that rain takes the form of the latest jackass fad that your management latched onto. In most cases, a new management fad means endless meetings, new buzzwords for the office toadies, and extra work that ends up either driving you crazy or your company out of business."

When I was at DAS, we kept the fads at bay.  One year it was MBO, "Management by Objective"; another year it was ZBB, "Zero Based Budgeting."  We thought that by putting our noses to the grindstone and doing our statutory duties conscientiously we would do better than the latest management scheme and all its foofaraw.  

The "Six Sigma" fad came along after I left the department.  It now dominates the DAS webpage and is the preoccupation of DAS management.  There is even a room in the state capitol building devoted to cultish Six Sigma belts, badges, and incantations.* 

Results, according to those who follow fads:  

Wasted time and wasted effort. According to one quality control expert quoted in Fortune magazine, "of 58 large companies that have announced Six Sigma programs, 91 percent have trailed the S&P 500 since."

One Nebraska citizen has noted that newspaper articles about waste and scandal often neglect to name the individuals responsible for the messes they create, as if "government waste" simply happens and no one is to be held accountable.  That is also a departure from years gone by, when agency directors would be expected to take responsibility publicly and, if necessary, heads would roll.  

That was also a time when agency directors were expected not to be involved in partisan politics.  Now the DAS director is also the head of his county's political party and engages in partisan activities.  In years gone by, agency directors were also expected to be above the influence of political campaign contributions.  Now, it is no coincidence that each of the procurement and public health messes noted above have a connection to campaign contributions.  It is pay-to-play.  

A few years ago, I was asked by authors Chuck Pallesen and Sam Van Pelt to recall, for their book Big Jim Exon, my days serving in state government.  One anecdote I was eager to share (you can read it on page 150) was about a call I once received from a Lincoln newspaper reporter.  He wanted to know of any state government accomplishments during my years of service when Exon was governor.  (He was an Exon critic.)  I gave him a list, but at the top of it I put the fact that under Exon there had been eight years of government without notable waste and scandal.  He replied that in Nebraska, that's easy — "we're not New Jersey."  I disagreed, stating that waste and scandal-free government doesn't happen on its own.  

Enough of state government by fad and aphorism, with its disastrous results and lack of accountability.  The only way to get out of these messes is by hard work from dedicated employees and by leaders who are willing to be accountable to the people they are supposed to serve, and not to those who put partisan politics above the public interest.  

*  Although I have no first-hand knowledge of what discussions transpire in rooms like these, I'd not be surprised to learn that the word "coach" is in vogue, as in "procurement coaches" and maybe even "accounting coaches," to raise fad above function.  We know from published emails that one department, charged with protecting the public health, had "compliance coaches" rather than enforcement officials.  Part of those coaches' jobs was to assure that failure to comply would not result in punishment.  This approach may have been responsible for a state inspector at Mead (Nebraska's 'Flint') explaining that violations there were by just "hard-working people trying to make a living."    

Bench 'The Good Life'

March, 2021

Lincoln –  High school and college basketball tournaments are in full swing.  But one team isn't what it used to be and needs to put its star player on the bench for some rest and recovery, because that player hasn't been performing of late.

That team is the State of Nebraska and its star player has been The Good Life.  Good Life was once the best around.  No more.  

Good Life became a star when Jim Exon was the Nebraska coach.  Assistant coach Stan Matzke, Jr., first put Good Life in a game and the rest is history.  Good Life was a scorer but also a team player.  Democrats and Republicans alike wanted to be on the team.  Jim Exon recruited both and made Nebraska proud.  

But for some reason, Nebraska voters started to choose only Republicans for the team.  They did not play well with Democrats and Good Life, a team player, was not as effective.  Nebraska soon began losing, often.

It's time to face up to the losses.  Nothing brings them home more than the disclosure by a former state worker, Kate High, about how the state procurement process is broken and desperately needs changes.  Pay-to-play, as she describes it so well, is downright corrupt, like fixing basketball games.  

Procurement is not the only problem:  Multiple departments have simultaneous disasters on their hands, from foster care, to corrections, to billions in state accounting exceptions, to unspeakable environmental contamination, to needless and unconscionable Covid-19 suffering (Nebraska ranks 11th in the country in per capita cases).

It's an embarrassment, an insult.  Enough!  Put Good Life on the bench to recover, and start to find better coaches and players soon, for the overall good of the State of Nebraska.  

"The Good Life" was more than a 1970's state motto.  It was a way of thinking that transcended slogans that come and go.  It hasn't been the official motto for many years.  For shame that Nebraskans' standards for state government have fallen so low that it is now becoming a distant memory.    

CDU as Model for U.S. Republicans

March, 2021

Berlin – If I were a German citizen, eligible to vote, likely I would support candidates of the SPD or Die Grünen.  Not the CDU, not the FDP, not Die Linke.

Die Linke have demonstrated that they are better critics on the outside, to keep people honest, than competent officials on the inside.  Gregor Gysi has been an entertaining case in point.  

The FDP had a chance to govern responsibly in coalition with the CDU a few years ago, but declined over petty differences.  That forced the CDU and SPD into a coalition, which neither wanted, and sorely compromised the SPD so that it has lost voters and is now only the shadow of what it was in the days of Willy Brandt and (my favorite) Helmut Schmidt.  

The FDP's irresponsibility made the execrable and dangerous AfD party the leading opposition party in the Bundestag.  How dangerous?  The Bundesverfassungsschutz has recently taken steps to put it under surveillance as a threat to democracy in Germany.  

The CDU — Christian Democratic Union — has governed responsibly, for the most part, for which it deserves credit.  Chancellor Angela Merkel has led Germany well, on balance (especially on refugees and the pandemic), although on fiscal policy I wish she were more sozial and had made fewer austerity demands on other countries in the Eurozone.  In Baden-Württemberg, the CDU has joined with the environmentalists of Die Grünen in a successful coalition for several years.

The CDU would be a good model for the Republican Party in the United States to follow, as Republicans struggle to free themselves from the grip of Trumpism.  The CDU is a center-right party firmly committed to democratic values.  Its roots go back the immediate post-WWII period, when America and the Marshall Plan were re-establishing Germany as a democracy and an economic power.  

There is an analogy that fits the situation.  When the Great French Wine Blight struck in the 19th century, French vintners turned to grafting American grapes onto their vines for resistance to the pest that caused it.  American Republicans should think about grafting CDU values back into their party for resistance to the political pestilence that similarly afflicts them.  After all, the CDU has a deep connection to America.  In a sense, Republicans would be re-importing the American values they once stood for themselves.   

I have not been in Berlin since late 2019 (because of the pandemic) and must rely mostly on newspapers and personal conversations to try to keep up with what is going on.  I also rely on ARD television streaming, especially Die Tagesschau, which never seems to change, nor should it.  It is straight news and its long-time viewers (I saw it first over fifty years ago) are most grateful for it.  

Merkel Portrait by Bettina Düesberg Lausitzer Platz 12a Berlin