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Friday, January 28, 2005

The Little Hoover That Squawked  




If they gave prizes for the government agency with the most unusual name, the short list would certainly include “The Milton Marks ‘Little Hoover’ Commission on California State Government Organization and Economy. The name inspires visions. First, imagine a swarm of tiny vacuum cleaners scouring the halls of the state Capitol for bits of bureaucratic debris. Then close your eyes and look to the left, and you might see midget FBI agents dusting thru the paperwork in search of fingerprints or loose bits of organizational turf. Try once more, looking to the right, and Californians attuned to the hydraulic humming of a smoothly functioning administrative machine may visualize a retro-1930’s style Modern Engineering Wonder of the World.




History generates the fourth image. Back in 1947 one of our Presidents took pity on a predecessor, a talented engineer and administrator whose well-meaning and diligent efforts had so worsened a bad situation that his name had become a popular synonym for economic disaster. President Truman’s rehabilitation of Herbert Hoover was thru an appointment to a newly created commission on Federal government reorganization – and ‘Hoover Commission’ fit the headlines. States emulate Federal examples, and as language expands thru analogy, those particular state government agencies that are set up to assess the workings of state government itself are now generally called the “Little Hoovers”.

The California Performance Review -- Governor Schwarzenegger’s project to ‘blow up the boxes’ by inflating the bureaucracy — recommended that hundreds of official Boards and Commissions be eliminated, with their duties and powers transferred to state agency executives. Subsequent lobbying spared some agencies, such as the Horse Racing Board, from the chop list, but 88 boards and commissions were still on the block last January 7th, when the Governor transmitted his Reorganization Plan #1 to our state’s Little Hoover for review. Professor Tax submitted the following comments to the 'Hooves, and judging by press reports of the January 26th public hearing:

such comments only add more notes to a symphony of objections.

So where’s the vacuum? What’s being investigated? Who gives a dam? Read on.

To: The "Little Hoover" Commission on California State Government
Re: Comments on Reorganization Plan #1 - Boards and Commissions
Date: January 25, 2005

Summary: The Governor’s pending Plan to reorganize State Boards and Commissions is based on a false idea of what “accountability” means. Reorganization Plan #1 would diminish public participation in government while claiming to enhance it. The Plan is an outgrowth of the California Performance Review, and suffers from similar flaws: sloppy research, inflated claims of savings, and a crude command-and-control view of public administration. I hope that this Commission will give a favorable recommendation only to terminating inactive, “deadwood” commissions, and that the Commission’s report will urge reconsideration of the rest of the plan – in particular, the proposed elimination of the 30 bodies that now regulate the state-licensed professions.

1) False Accountability. At the core of the problem is the definition of “accountability”. The Reorganization Plan claims:

“A common misconception is that the requirement for a board to conduct its business in public results in accountability. Regardless of such a public forum, any board empowered to do what it wants without consequence is not accountable. If power and responsibility for making policy lies with an unelected, term-appointed board or commission, then no individual, group, or state agency is held responsible. Accountability for the failures and the successes of the executive branch must rest with the elected leader. The recommendations contained within this reorganization proposal advance both public accessibility and accountability.” Reorg. Plan #1, p. 8 (emph. added); online at: http://www.lhc.ca.gov/lhcdir/reorg/GRP1.pdf p. 10 of 57

This is a remarkable statement. There’s no mention of “checks and balances”, “separation of powers”, “audits and reports”, professional responsibility, or grass-roots participation. “Accountability” is equated with top-down rule by an ambitious, charismatic elected executive. In such a system, every worker, manager and state agency is responsible only to The Leader, and The Leader is personally responsible to the voters for everything that the State does or fails to do. This sort of government characterized late Republican Rome under Sulla and Caesar, as well as Central Europe in the 1930’s. It wasn’t a good idea then, and it isn’t one now.

The public members of this Commission can decide for themselves whether the premises of Reorganization Plan #1 are correct. They need only answer three questions:

· “Do I act irresponsibly because I was appointed to this Commission for a set term?”

· “Does this Commission itself act arbitrarily because there are no immediate negative consequences?”

· “Does anything make me, as a member of this Commission, accountable to the People of California?”

Such soul-searching by the Commission members should reveal that true “accountability” is much too important to vest in any one particular elected official, no matter how charming or how vain.

Then, too, what in the Reorganization Plan makes The Leader “accountable”? The fact of electoral victory? That’s in the past, and disappointed supporters cannot revoke their votes. The need to woo support for re-election or a bid for higher office? Perhaps, but that implies that the entire executive branch will cease to be accountable whenever an incumbent governor decides against another bid for office. Such a narrow notion of accountability can’t be right. Californians have a more balanced sense of the way government should work. The statute that created this Commission says: “The Legislature finds that our system of government is a complex structure of interlocking relationships among all levels of government for managing public funds and programs.” (Gov’t. Code §8521.5)

2) Diminished Public Participation. If the Reorganization Plan fails to promote real accountability, there is no other reason to adopt it. There’s no showing that California’s system of public representation on Boards and Commissions has caused real problems in practice. Consider professional licensing. Plan #1 offers only vapid generalizations, such as:

“Separation of the regulatory and licensing functions of state government into so many different entities limits access to information and services. Furthermore, the constituent is not protected as effectively because there is no single agency monitoring enforcement or setting policy and standards. Indeed, the constituent finds the range of entities confusing and not user-friendly.” (p. 6)

Is this really the case? How on earth does joining together the functions of the Acupuncture Board and the Structural Pest Control Board under the common aegis of the Department of Consumer Affairs help a “constituent” get more information and services? Will the agents who monitor auto repair shops also review accountants’ work papers to test compliance with technical standards after the Department absorbs the Accountancy Board? Are folks who want to know about architect’s licenses at present really so confused that they look for information under ‘Cosmetology’?

The Reorganization Plan assumes that individual administrators make better decisions than committee-like Boards and Commissions with several members. This assumption needs to be tested. There is no reason to think that professional bureaucrats are innately superior in perspective and experience to the professionals and public members who serve on regulatory Boards. Even those who joke about committees designing camel-like horses should acknowledge that plans are often improved and win acceptance more readily when they incorporate several individual points of view.

The proposal to abolish professional regulatory boards also ignores the reasons such entities exist. Historically, three characteristics distinguished professions from other trades and businesses: special study and knowledge, independent employment by and for clients, and an element of public interest. A Certified Public Accountant, for example, must maintain independence from a client, because:

“The accounting profession's public consists of clients, credit grantors, governments, employers, investors, the business and financial community, and others who rely on the objectivity and integrity of certified public accountants to maintain the orderly functioning of commerce.” (AICPA Principles of Professional Conduct, Article II)

Professionals are represented on the bodies that regulate them precisely because the practice of a profession is infused with a public interest. The danger that self-regulation will lead to cartels and excessive entry barriers is mitigated by the presence of “public” nonprofessionals on such boards. The Reorganization Plan would end the tradition of professional self-regulation in the public interest and replace it with bureaucratic rule by state administrators. The public and the professionals may continue to participate as supplicants, but they will be excluded from the circle of those who decide. The claim that this will “maximize the accessibility and accountability of state government” (Plan #1, p. 6) is an abuse of language.

Conclusion: Reorganization Plan #1 would significantly reduce citizen participation in government in furtherance of a false vision of public “accountability”. Rationalizing state boards and commissions is a worthwhile goal, but this plan needs to be redone from start to finish.






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