Friday, September 24, 2010

Seeing Red

Acting New Jersey Governor Kim Guadagno’s executive order establishing a bi-partisan commission to reduce red tape is a feel-good exercise in futility.  While the commission will certainly meet the GOP’s goal of eliminating some of those pesky regulations which help consumers and the non-wealthy, it will be ineffective in making a significant dent in the burgeoning state budget.

The nine-member commission, to be headed by no other than the same Kim Guadagno, will review “administrative rules and regulations, which the administration says can have an impact on job creation, investment and economic growth” according to the Press of Atlantic City.  That would be a great approach if we were living in the 1950s.  Over the past half-century, better techniques for elimination of bureaucratic waste have been proven more effective and efficient. 

Why won’t it work?  There are two reasons, which I categorize as “buy-in” and “institutionalization.”

Like it or not, red tape is there for a reason.  That doesn’t make it right, but when the state is spending public dollars, some controls are necessary.  Chances are, a lot of the red tape was instituted by well-intentioned state employees who are doing their job as fiscal stewards of our tax dollars, but despite their good intentions, once the bureaucratic red tape is in place, it provides a false set of comfort and control for those implementing state policies.

So if this high-level nine-member commission, which by definition is divorced from the day-to-day workings of a department within state government, comes up with a method to reduce red tape and unnecessary paperwork, there will certainly be some short-term benefits.  But without the buy-in from those entrusted to implement these processes, these benefits will be ephemeral.  Change to established processes is not easy, given that the employees who are implementing those processes generally have been successful in their careers by using those established techniques.  In order for the improvements to be more than a short-term fad, the underlying changes must be institutionalized – that is, they must become second nature to those who are working with them.  This requires a culture change of all the stakeholders and is neither easy nor quick.  But there are a lot of proven techniques that will allow this to happen over the course of a few years while still reaping some of the benefits almost immediately.

Guadagno’s order establishes a permanent commission with periodic reviews (which certainly will be non-value-added), hardly a red-tape killer.  Her approach perpetuates the odor of mistrust between the Governor’s office and state employees.  So what would be a better way?

Republicans are always pontificating that government should be run like a business.  I can guarantee that the CEO of any business that establishes a similar approach as Guadagno’s would be on the street faster than you could say Carly Fiorina.  Businesses today have embraced a series of techniques that fall under the moniker of Lean/Six-Sigma.  The reason that these techniques have been successful (when properly used) is that they get all of the stakeholders involved in designing, implementing, and institutionalizing the process changes.  Extrapolating to state government, this would include not only “executive management” (the nine-member commission), but also a select sample from middle managers and employees – down to the lowest pay grade – to customers (i.e. the taxpayers), and others who are consumers of the specific agency’s processes.  Real improvement and real culture change will involve a long-term commitment to state employees, including training, evaluation based on effectiveness of change, and most importantly participation in defining the changes in how they do their jobs.

The Guadagno Commission looks to me like a wolf in sheep’s clothing – a way to eliminate the regulations that are abhorrent to the GOP.  But it does little to benefit taxpayers or our agents – the state employees who live with this every day.  A firm commitment to long-term improvement, using proven business techniques, is a better solution.  But it’s harder and doesn’t result in self-aggrandizing headlines. 

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