Saturday, January 31, 2009

Rhetoric & Reality

At what point do you say, “hmmm, maybe this is a bad idea, or perhaps a good idea badly executed.”

Our president has now had to ask for two waivers of his "no-lobbyist in high positions" principle.  So, is his idea bad, or what? I submit that, like most things, the idea has merit, but when cast as some absolute, it doesn’t work.  Absolutes rarely work in practice. They’re the stuff of religious ideology, which we know is generally useless.

The key here, it seems to me is to proffer the policy—we need to curb the power of lobbyists in making public decisions. Having said that, we need to acknowledge that not all lobbyists are inherently bad, or evil. Much like, surely we know that not all Republicans are bad, or evil. So long as Obama keeps the decision processes open for external scrutiny, unlike the Bush-Cheney axis of evil, we should be able to determine the effect of lobbyists on public decisions.  The central issue always is the content of a decision and its potential effects on the commonweal.

And on another front, our President has announced that his approach to governance is to focus on whether government actually “works.”  Ronald Reagan famously proclaimed that “Government is not the solution, Government is the problem,” and he then set about to prove his axiom by appointing generally inept people to run his government, much as George W did. President Obama seems to be saying that he wants to weed Government programs, retaining those that “work” and eliminating support for those that do not “work.” That seems unarguable.

However (there’s always a “however”), this raises the definition of “work”, or how would anyone know a Government program is “working?”  As an ex-evaluator, I am keenly aware that, often with Government programs, “working” is in the eye of the beholder. When one is benefiting directly, or even indirectly, from a Government program, it is likely to be viewed as highly effective.  DARE, a drug abuse prevention program operated nationwide in the public school system is viewed largely as ineffective. Yet we continue. The Head Start program, widely heralded, was found by several major evaluation studies to be at best marginally effective, but the studies were criticized for adopting unrealistic performance measures. Too many people saw benefit, with or without any data.

As we have noted in earlier Blogs, Congress generally has no clue to which programs work and which do not. Congress seems to view success in terms of which districts receive public money. If my district is receiving the public largesse, that program must be effective.  Congress seems to have no larger view and its oversight is little more than a political gesture.

So, if President Obama is serious, he will have to hold lengthy and open debate forums to reach consensus on the definitions of success.  Then he will have to look to the evidence base to determine which programs actually have objective evidence of effectiveness. Only then will he understand whether Government is “working”, something Reagan never even attempted.

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