Home » Politics » No Decision, Big Decision

No Decision, Big Decision

When is no decision actually a policy?  In government it’s often the default position, a deliberate plan to stay the course and keep things the way they are.  Bureaucracy has a tendency to be conservative, punting whenever it can and allowing things to stay as they are.  But in a time of great change or even crisis, is this acceptable?  Increasingly there are signs that Minnesota has become a state mired by diffuse responsibility and an inability for the government to respond to the situation at hand in a way that is effective.

No action can be very dangerous.  But there is increasing evidence that it is become a serious problem – and I doubt that Minnesota is alone.

A report on MPR  focused on a central issue facing rural Minnesota – can we balance job growth with important environmental protections?  Outstate has been suffering far more than the urbanized core when it comes to jobs.  One whole generation has largely fled to the cities, and another one is poised to do the same.  But we can’t simply allow our resources and our environment to be consumed for the benefit of those who are alive right now.  How do we handle it?  Consider this anecdote from the MPR story:

Wayne Brandt, an executive with the Minnesota Forest Industries and Minnesota Timber Producers Association, described a project that the UPM paper company considered for its plant in Grand Rapids. Brandt said the environmental review took more than two years, and the company ultimately decided not to build it. In contrast, the company did build a similar plant in Bavaria, in southern Germany.

“It took six months from beginning of process,” he said. “Not China, not Indonesia. Permit requirements were more stringent than in Minnesota, but they could get a decision made.”

The problem was not strict requirements – Germany is known for strong environmental protections and regulation.  The problem was that no one in Minnesota could make the decision to get something done.

This small example appears to be part of a pattern that includes some of the headline grabbing stories of our time.  Consider this list:

Any one of these is a serious problem – and the I-35W bridge collapse was a tragedy.  Taken together they show a fairly consistent inability to simply make a decision and move forward with some kind of plan of action.  Our state government has become paralyzed by diffuse responsibility and the inability to make a simple decisions through clear, open, and auditable processes.

This is the opposite of the standard rhetoric from many political activists who insist that government is trying to shove its decisions down people’s throats.  Certainly, that is the way things such as the Central Corridor ultimately seem to happen when they finally become a reality.  But is the root of that problem set in the inability to do anything until some kind of crisis is precipitated and the issue at hand becomes a very big deal?

At this point the argument is merely an observation based on a series of “anecdotes from Hell”, the kinds of things that normally do not make for good policy by themselves.  But there does appear to be an inability to make small things happen through bureaucratic inertia marked by processes and responsibility chains that would allow small changes to occur naturally, each one balanced by its own direct responsibility to the people and resources of our state.

No decision is often a decision by itself.  In changing times, it’s not always the most conservative “Things are good as they are” approach that appears on the surface.  Pushing important actions out into the future has a tendency to make our world more contentious and the projects big enough to get noticed by an increasingly heated politics.  Real progress requires leadership that appears to generally be missing at all levels.

The real root of “Make no small plans” as a government policy may be inertia and cowardice rather than any kind of genuine belief system. That is what has to change before we are going to grasp the changes that are occurring around us and move forward with confidence.

14 thoughts on “No Decision, Big Decision

  1. I’m really having trouble deciding what to write in this box. What if what I right is wrong? Or maybe a little wrong? How will I know if it’s right? [SIGH] I’ll get back to you. Or not.

  2. I am 100% sure you are right about this. Government has to be effective and I really don’t care so much about the size or cost as long as it is getting the job done. I don’t know about it being too expensive right now but I am pretty sure we are not getting the value we need for our money. That’s a totally different problem to me. I’d pay a lot for a government that educated our kids, provided health care, and took care of things that it needs to. I don’t see that right now.

    • Brilliant distinction, Annalise. There’s a big difference between “costing too much” (not affordable) and “ineffective” (at any price).

      Very insightful, Erik. Now how do we get the word out to voters and bureaucrats themselves? Really, wouldn’t all we need have is a few bold and courageous leaders in the bureaucracy to push the state’s agencies out being stuck in a rut? i think most state workers are decent enough people, and having a few inspirational leaders and examples would help them do the right thing, and get things done — transforming our government into one that can let permits in 6 months instead of 2 years.

      • Thanks, Ola.

        I am certain that most, if not nearly all, state employees are good people who would prefer to just get the job done and not pass the buck. So if I’m right about what’s happening, it’s a failure of leadership. That’s why we pay managers the big bucks, after all, and they are the ones who get the credit AND the blame.

        The first step is to talk about this openly and ID the problems without blaming & shaming. From there, I’m sure that the employees themselves would be part of the solution if someone from the outside were to ask questions.

        I wrote this as a new administration was taking over in hope of influencing them. I’ve heard of some of this going on, but only on a small scale. It may be enough, but be assured that I’m watching for more evidence of an ongoing problem. Other than this pathetic shutdown I don’t see any yet.

  3. Jack, none of us like to make decisions. Times are tough, and the snow is piling up. 🙂

    Anna, thanks! There was something else I dd on a similar topic, but I can’t find it. I think there’s a general theme here.

  4. That makes perfect sense. The political climate makes it impossible for anyone who wants to survive long enough to get a pension to make any decision. I don’t think that’s a surprise at all.

    You’ve said yourself that the right wing won a long time ago. This is how. They proved that government can’t do anything good by making sure it does nothing.

  5. Dale, that’s the comment of the day by far. You’re right, this is all one big (and sick) phenom – a series of symptoms produced by a very sick society.

    Thing is that Democrats have to get past this if we are going to make the case that government is useful. The only alternative I can think of is to retreat back to the most obvious essential services and use the most vulnerable as our front lines – which is about what we are doing now.

    The way to reverse this, IMHO, is dramatic leadership and a strong commitment to empower state employees to make decisions. There’s more to it than that, of course, but it has to start there.

    But you are right that this is more evidence that we’ve let the “right” win the basic argument. I also think it shows.

  6. Our system of government is based on an adversarial model in which as many as half the participants have incentives not to follow the leadership. While the private sector may tolerate a certain amount of dissent, it is based on shared goals and a common agenda. That’s not what the Founders handed us, and we’ve only made it worse.

  7. I agree, Charlie. But it’s damned hard to make the case for government when things have been let go this long and there are clear signs that it’s just not working anymore.

    Once again, I’ve been caught complaining without making clear and distinct proposals. Sorry about that. I think that this needs to be said, especially on the “left”. We have a real problem making the case that we are, as Anna put it, getting our money’s worth.

  8. I think part of the issue also is that our elected officials (on both sides of the aisle) tend to be more concerned with getting re-elected than actually accomplishing things. No one wants to really make the decision because then someone might get mad.

    I have seen similar attitudes in some of the places I have worked. If a procedure is not clearly spelled out, the tendency is to “check with my boss” instead of using previous procedures as a template and applying a little good old fashioned common sense.

  9. I’ll have to think about this. I agree that no one wants to make a decision but the conclusion that this leads to bigger political messes is a bit much. It seems to make sense on the face of it but it takes some thinking to swallow.

  10. davincidad: I think you are right, but that attitude has permeated the bureaucracy as well – and they have no excuse at all. I don’t know what to make of any of it.

    Jim: It’s a theory at this point, but what I see is that when poltiicos want to make something happen they have to make it into a big deal first. That’s what bothers me. I think that is very true.

  11. Pingback: Suburbanization of Poverty | Barataria – The work of Erik Hare

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