Maybe it’s because we are a country born out of a revolution, but Americans have a decided preference for dramatic change, and little interest in the boring details of our governmental processes.
I thought about that aspect of our national character earlier this month, as I listened to a variety of presentations at the annual Howey Political Forum. The focus was on economic and administrative challenges facing Indiana and proposals for meeting those challenges.
In a forceful speech, Governor Daniels emphasized his commitment to thoroughgoing change, and he ticked off a number of those he intends to pursue: continuing to close underused BMV license branches, privatizing prisons, consolidating school corporations, turning some state highways into toll roads, and several others. He added that “no one should be surprised” by his determination to enact sweeping changes in Indiana’s government, because he had run a campaign in which he’d promised to do just that.
Governor Daniels was absolutely right; he did campaign on a promise of sweeping change. And I suspect that the mantra of change was a very important element in his victory. “It’s time for a change” is a powerful and time-honored theme of American political life. Rather than analyzing what the proposed change will accomplish, and how it will be implemented, Americans have an unquenchable optimism that the new idea will be better than the one it replaced, and the bigger, the better.
This is not to speak to the merits of any of the Governor’s proposals. I agree with some, and disagree with others. But it was hard not to hear in his enthusiastic speech some disquieting echoes of former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, who was often quoted as saying about city government, “If it isn’t broken, break it. Then fix it.” I guess I just want to be sure that what we are undertaking to fix is really already broken.
I also think it is interesting that Republicans and Democrats alike prefer sweeping new measures to the sorts of admittedly boring, incremental improvements that everyone familiar with government thinks we need. During a later panel, Pat Kiely, a former Republican legislator widely respected on both sides of the aisle, talked about one of the enduring frustrations companies encounter when they do business with state government. Most state agencies are organized into regions. This makes sense: why should people in Northwest Indiana, for example, have to come to Indianapolis to deal with a government agency? But as Kiely noted, there is no consistency in either the number of regions or their number. The Indiana Economic Development Commission has six, Workforce Development has eleven, Tourism, six, the State Police, seventeen. There are nine Education Service Centers, four Indiana Housing and Community Development Offices, and three air quality regions. And so on.
Perhaps, before we embark on the really revolutionary changes—like turning our prisons and roads over to corporations—we could rationalize the haphazard mess through which we deliver state services. It wouldn’t be as sexy, but it’s already broken.