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One parable about problem-solving is about how to load rocks into a truck, or a big box. Start with the boulders, then the stones, then the pebbles. Get the order wrong, and the container gets full before the rocks are all in. Get the order right, and the pebbles fill in spaces around the stones, and the stones fill in spaces around the boulders.
Do the big stuff first. The little stuff, last.
What if government worked like that? It happens once in a while, just as a reminder of the power of collective community action — the basic idea behind government — and of what’s possible.
But it doesn’t happen often enough in the normal course of government business. It happens when the normal course of business is interrupted, either by events or on purpose.
Texas has a 30-year-old example to consider. Comptroller Bob Bullock, running for lieutenant governor, proposed a “performance review” of state government, and his successor, John Sharp, actually put it together and made it a full-time operation in his agency. Sharp also made a public appeal for government that “works better and costs less,” a way to involve voters and raise the stakes for lawmakers who might be reluctant to go along.
The idea was simple: Reconsider everything the state is doing, try to make it more efficient, weed out things that don’t work, propose new ideas, save money where possible and remake it all into something better. The first review included recommendations to consolidate state agencies and privatize some state services, among other things. Sharp, who is now the chancellor of the Texas A&M University System, said adopting all of it would free more than $8 billion for savings or other state programs. The Legislature didn’t like all of the ideas but went along with a lot of it.
Political work is about vision, about setting goals, about winning public support so you can make laws with those goals in mind. The performance reviews were more about how things work, partly to free up money and other resources that could be used for other government and services, partly just to make things work better.
It’s an exercise in separating the operation of government — how things work — from the direction of government — what, in broader terms, government should do. The nuts and bolts on one hand, the vision thing on the other.
Big organizations need a kick in the pants every so often. Spring cleaning. Reconsideration. A good, hard questioning about what’s working, what’s not, whether the goals now are what they used to be. A shakeup.
“I think it is always a good idea to review the efficiency and cost effectiveness of state programs,” says Billy Hamilton, the deputy chancellor and chief financial officer of the Texas A&M University System. He was Sharp’s deputy comptroller in 1991, and managed the first and subsequent reviews.
“The performance review made state government better. It introduced new ideas and approaches. It shook things up and became a national model. Over time, programs build up ‘plaque.’ There’s always a need to remove the buildup — or at least ask hard questions.”
They saved some money, freeing up billions that were tangled in various programs for use in other parts of the state budget — a critical selling point at the time, because state finances were pinched and the Legislature was trying to write a budget that didn’t cut programs dear to voters.
There was a lot of squirming in the executive branch of government — that’s where most of the state’s programs and services are — but it was useful enough that the federal government and other state governments copied it. California even borrowed Hamilton to help run its effort.
It gradually played out, as the offerings became less and less bold. You can make a splash with the first set of recommendations, but each subsequent effort is a little weaker than its predecessor. And deals made to pass various ideas also get in the way: An idea shelved in trade for something else — give up this idea and we’ll approve that one — can’t be brought back two years later. A deal is a deal.
When Sharp moved on, the next comptroller, Carole Keeton Rylander, picked up the performance reviews. But she was considered — properly — as a political competitor to then-Gov. Rick Perry, and lawmakers had grown weary of the biennial flood of proposals from the comptroller’s office.
The Legislature took them away, putting performance reviews in the hands of the Legislative Budget Board, where they have faded into an all-but-forgotten exercise largely ignored by lawmakers.
The state’s performance reports have been effectively buried, but there are lots of places where state government operations could use a scrubbing. That might free up some money. It might just make things work better, get rid of some underperforming programs and add some things policymakers would like to do.
It’s a way to get away from the small rocks — the noisy little ideas of most political campaigns — and on to the big stuff every Texan knows about and hopes will be addressed by the elected folks in Austin: good schools, good roads, a strong safety net, fair taxes and all the rest. The boulders.
Editor’s note: Ross Ramsey worked in the office of the Texas comptroller from 1996-98.
Disclosure: The Texas A&M University System and the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.