Why is Illinois borrowing to pay state operating expenses? Will the state employee pension system be solvent after those early retirement deals? How will the state close the budget deficit?
Illinois hasn’t been the only state to face long-term fiscal and policy crises in recent years. Remember California’s energy shutdown? Who could forget Florida’s ballot debacles? And now every state seems to be grappling with a shortage of flu vaccine.
Why can’t government plan for such events? Why can’t the states think ahead, anticipate problems and attack them before they get out of hand? These are questions that might occur to anyone over coffee and the morning newspaper.
And, in fact, journalists, political commentators and academics are enamored of planning. Setting goals and priorities and allocating resources appeals to the rational mind. Americans like to believe that public problems can be dealt with in a straightforward, workaday manner. As Ross Perot liked to say, “Let’s just look under the hood, see what’s wrong and fix it!” So why can’t government do just that?
Of course, a lot of planning does go on in state government. Just as in the private sector, “strategic planning” is all the rage in state agencies these days. This follows a long line of trendy approaches to planning and management that have come and gone over the years. Zero-based Budgeting, Management by Objectives and Planning, Programming and Budgeting Systems, among many other catch phrases and programs, have all had their day. Some of these planning strategies have left a mark on the way government operates.
For example, state government regularly accomplishes a good deal of planning through an elaborate budgeting process. In fact, for the past six months, officials at the University of Illinois, where I work, have been deeply involved in the development of a budget from which we can’t spend a penny until July 1, 2006. Planning also can be seen in “rainy day” funds, highway and capital building project goals and estimates of future prison populations, to name a few. Furthermore, the private sector probably doesn’t do as much planning as some government critics seem to believe.
Let’s face it. Planning is tough. Sometimes it takes all of our energy to get through today and maybe think a little bit about tomorrow. But next week? Maybe we’ll get to that later. This is especially the case for government when it is stretched thin by budget cuts and increased demands. “Doing less with more” and “trimming the bloated bureaucracy” often mean focusing only on the most pressing day-to-day service needs and putting such luxuries as planning on hold until a better day, which may never come. Think about how tough it is to plan a family budget — especially when times are tough, with maybe one spouse out of work and the kids suddenly needing braces. That’s where state government is today.
But, that said, there’s no doubt state government has an especially difficult time planning ahead. There are several reasons for this. First, our political system doesn’t give policy-makers much incentive to plan. The frequency with which we elect state officials gives them a very clear time horizon, and that horizon is short. Every four years, Illinois’ governor, other statewide officials and most state senators face a re-election campaign or a new job. State representatives face re-election every two years. In other words, state officials are working under short-term, renewable contracts with frequent performance evaluations by their bosses — the voters. These policy-makers have no electoral incentive to make decisions that would benefit the state in, say, 10 years, at the expense of another decision that might bring benefits next year.
Thus, if politicians behave like the live-in-the-moment grasshopper, as opposed to the work-for-tomorrow ant, it may be, in large part, because the political system encourages them to do so. Of course, politicians have a moral and professional obligation to work for the long-term good of the state, and most of them take this obligation seriously. But when the choice is between a short-term benefit for the state that will get them re-elected and a long-term benefit that may result in their being tossed from office, long-term planning generally gets short shrift.
Even in such a system, political parties and their leaders might be able to take the long-term view, developing plans to present to the electorate, who might then choose which direction to pursue. Parties could conceivably, in taking a broader, longer view, enable policy planning and more coherent policy strategies. Legislators come and go, but parties remain, and so they can and should plan ahead, so the argument goes. In Westminster-style parliamentary systems, this is precisely what happens. But even in such a parliament, a turnover in party control can wreak havoc on government planning. Tony Blair and the Labour Party can plan and implement any policy they wish because they currently control the British government. But what happens if Labour loses its majority next year and is replaced by the Conservative Party? Suddenly, all the plans of Labour are thrown out the window, and new, Conservative plans are implemented. Just because a plan exists doesn’t mean better planning happens.
Is switching erratically from one long-term plan to another better than having no plan at all?
Aside from the disincentives for planning that are set up by the structure of state government, public policy planning is hard simply because public problems are, well, hard. If they were easy, someone in the private sector would have figured out how to solve them and make money doing so. How do we stop people from abusing drugs? How do we educate children? How do we encourage the unemployed to work, and how do we care for those who can’t or won’t work? How do we discourage people from committing crimes? These are questions that humans have long pondered, and there is no reason to believe that we are going to answer them definitively any time soon.
There are two levels on which these public problems are hard.
First, it’s tough just to reach a consensus on common policy goals for many public problems. For example, how do we help poor, single mothers? Do we get them a job? Do we encourage them to be stay-at-home moms? Do we try to stop single women from having babies in the first place? Maybe we do all these things.
Prioritizing these goals is difficult, and some of them may actually be incompatible.
Second, even if we can reach a consensus on the policy goal for a particular public problem, there is usually honest debate about the effectiveness of various policies in achieving that goal. Say we agree that the state should adopt the long-term goal of reducing single motherhood. Will sex education achieve this goal? What should we teach in a sex education class? Who should take these classes? Some argue that sex education discourages single motherhood, while others argue that sex education actually encourages it. Will providing young women with contraceptives reduce single motherhood? How about providing young men with contraceptives? If we encourage single people to “just say no,” will that reduce the number of babies born out of wedlock? New policy ideas are always risky, and even old ones are rarely proven unambiguously to be effective. Furthermore, public policy very often has unintended consequences that we won’t know about until it is put into effect.
This uncertainty about the potential effects of public policy makes policy-makers reluctant to undertake major policy changes and long-range planning. Rarely is it persuasive to argue on the floor of the Illinois General Assembly that a bill is a “bold new policy that will fundamentally change the way government addresses this public problem.” The obvious, and very effective, counterarguments are: If this idea is so good, how come no one ever thought of it before? How do you know it will do what you say? What other problems will this policy cause? Thus, the bias is toward preferring the status quo, or something very close to it. This is true not only for elected officials, who have succeeded in the current system and so see little reason to change it, but also for most citizens, who often prefer the devil they know to the devil they don’t.
Political scientists have a word for the kind of policy-making that results from this environment: incrementalism.
Policy-makers do not soberly assess all the current and predicted problems of the state and then rationally evaluate the pros and cons of the full range of potential policy solutions. They don’t have the electoral incentive to be so rational and far-sighted, even if that were humanly possible. Rather, taking 98 percent of what the state does currently as a given, policy-makers consider only how incremental policy changes might help the state do what it does just a little bit better. After all, the current policy regime — represented by the existing budget, laws, administrative rules and unofficial norms of behavior for government officials — embodies countless decisions, compromises and judgments that have been made since the state was founded. It might, in fact, be seen as audacious to make major changes in such a system. Presumably, these past decisions had some merit, and we should change them only with good reason.
Incremental policy-making also is supported by those people and groups, in and out of government, who benefit from the status quo. For example, last year, the governor proposed closing the state prison at Vandalia and relocating those prisoners to newer and, arguably, more cost-efficient prisons. While this proposal did not result from a careful planning process, it is the kind of decision that could have. But what happened when this change — a fairly nonincremental, although certainly not radical, policy shift — was proposed? The politicians, citizens and prison workers from Vandalia and surrounding communities who would have been adversely affected by the closure mobilized and fought hard to stop it. And they succeeded. It is always easier for people to notice the immediate damage done to them by taking something away than for those who might gain something in the future to recognize those potential benefits. So those who are hurt by planning and policy change will always work harder than those who might be helped by it. Thus, taking the path of least resistance, policy-makers avoid long-range planning and change, preferring small shifts in policy that don’t offend too many people.
In general, then, long-range government policy planning is especially difficult because of uncertainty — and the fear of it. Policy-makers are uncertain about how new policies will work and about their political implications. They also are uncertain about how conditions will change, even without a change in policy. What new public problems might arise unexpectedly? What public problems might resolve themselves if things are just left alone? Because policy-makers must face the electorate frequently, they are especially afraid of uncertainty and unwilling to wait for the long-term benefits that may (or may not) result from policy planning and change.
Are state government policy-makers fundamentally incapable of long-range policy planning? Is such planning just a utopian dream of academics and other impractical thinkers? Maybe. But that doesn’t mean government shouldn’t make efforts to think further into the future than the next election. After all, the public problems that policy-makers are charged with solving typically are long-term and can’t be solved next week or even next year. In many cases, they can’t ever be completely “solved,” but they might be ameliorated with close, concerted government attention. Public problems such as education funding, poverty and maintaining roads and bridges are chronic, like diabetes, rather than acute, like a broken leg. We must strive to improve them, even if we cannot cure them. Indeed, these chronic public problems may be the ones most amenable to planning. Establishing institutions with a longer-term perspective to monitor these problems and suggest policy changes may help.
But just as important, voters must give policy-makers the incentive to think long term. Cynical thinking to the contrary, politicians respond amazingly well to the well-articulated desires of voters. If we think longer term as voters — in terms of the campaign appeals that we respond to, the people we elect and the contacts we have with policy-makers once they are in office — our representatives will think longer term.
This may be difficult when a brother’s state job is cut, or taxes are raised or a program that helps the wife’s business is changed. But if we are willing to accept policies that are short-sighted, that is what we will get. It should not be a surprise that, in a country where the savings rate is among the lowest in the industrialized world and many people balance their budgets by maxing out their credit cards, we get a state government that, when faced with major financial problems, solves them, at least in part, by borrowing money and selling off state assets to pay for current operations.
We get the government we ask for. If we want ants running state government, we need to stop electing grasshoppers.
Christopher Z. Mooney is a professor of political studies with the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
Illinois Issues, January 2005