Commentary: Accountable Government

Commentary: Accountable Government

A citizen’s reflection on the city budget process.

This city budget cycle is the second I’ve covered. Last year, in a column entitled “Accountable Citizenship,” I reflected on our, the public’s, generally shallow political culture. This year I’d add three lessons I take away about the government side of the equation.

First, this quote from the book “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership,” under the subheading “The Illusion of the Broken System,” seems apt: “Any social system … is the way it is because the people in that system (at least those individuals and factions with the most leverage) want it that way. … ‘There is no such thing as a dysfunctional organization, because every organization is perfectly aligned to achieve the results it currently gets.’”

Second, difficulty crossing aisles isn’t limited to Congress. Consider the row over affordable housing funding. A proposal came forward to dedicate an addition to the meals tax. Certain councilors supported it, but the business community and the city’s budget advisory committee didn’t. Other councilors opposed the set-aside, saying, if it’s important, council should find room in the budget. But they neither proposed cuts to make room, nor owned that they don’t think housing is a relative high priority. Then we more or less fired at each other broadside like sailing navies until one side lost.

But what about some horse-trading, give-and-take, mixing-and-matching? What about a little bit each from the meals tax, the city’s myriad other taxes and fees, and budget cuts/reductions/deferrals? Or whatever. I think the technical term is “compromise.” I would’ve liked to see more creative bargaining and a settlement that a broadened alliance could live with. The housing issue needs a sustainable broad-based constituency, including the business community, not just a particular funding source.

Lastly, citizens should understand the discretionary power of unelected bureaucracies. “Bureaucracy” isn’t automatically bad; it’s the administrative and logistical machinery that lets any organization function. Yet I believe certain big decisions are 90 percent made in back offices before rising to the level of political clarity and scrutiny. The window into that 90 percent can be opaque, if not guarded by gatekeeper-filters.

For example, the Ad Hoc Joint City-Schools Facility Investment Task Force lamented a murky alternatives analysis process for capital projects. Staff decisions with massive dollar ramifications aren’t standardized or clearly documented. The choices presented to council can be binary — build or don’t build — rather than an array of potentially quicker and cheaper options. As Task Force member Elliot Branch put it: “There’s this whole set of implicit assumptions that drive you to … a project definition that have not been exposed to any level of public discussion. … You only get half credit in math class if you don’t show your work.”

I’ve sensed at times a culture of entitlement to the sacrosanctity of staffers’ “subject matter expertise.” They’re experts, no doubt, and as hardworking and professional as anybody. But even in the hardest sciences, experts color facts and data through values-based, even outright political processes: Which studies get priority staff time? Which facts and data are included as relevant or excluded, and how are they arranged narratively in reports and recommendations? Which external inputs and inquiries are entertained? What are the relational and power dynamics amongst the staff, and between the staff and council? Dismissing or failing to recognize such inescapable subjectivity might pave the way to technocratic hubris and self-absolution of the need for greater openness.

The writer, a city resident, reports on a variety of housing, budget and faith-based issues for the Gazette Packet.