“There oughta be a law!”
Whenever things go wrong, one of the first responses is to write a law. Forbid whatever just went wrong; compel people to do something that should have been done.
Our code books expand accordingly . . . because, the world being such as it is, and human beings such as we are, humans will always find a new way to do wrong.
This fact tells us that, as attractive as writing a law may be, it isn’t necessarily a cure for the problem . . . whatever the problem may be. It may be necessary, but it is rarely sufficient.
The same goes for detailed policies and procedures, no matter how carefully crafted. The best of policies cannot make people behave wisely or nobly. At best, they may help reduce the frequency with which they behave stupidly or maliciously.
Headline stories today drive this point home. Newly released documents obtained in the now-settled suit against the Senate district map-making process appear to reveal extensive and carefully planned efforts to circumvent the Fair Districts amendments. Partisan maneuvering in private was obscured with the smoke and mirrors of orchestrated “public” engagement. If that reading is at all fair (and the Senate’s decision to settle suggests it is), constitutional amendments demanding a nonpartisan process were far from enough to foster nonpartisanship among otherwise interested parties.
Closer to home, there are allegations that a Bay-area school district stuck bodies in teacher seats in “co-teacher” roles to meet the class-size requirements of the state constitution. Those individuals, according to some accounts, did not actually teach, prepare lesson plans or evaluate students . . . nor were they likely to have been retained after the first semester counting period ended.
All of this brought to mind a conversation with an elected municipal official at the recent Florida League of Cities annual conference. He was trying to be sure his expectations of the city’s manager were appropriately high when it came to responsible budgeting practices. What he was seeking was a budgeting process that would ensure that public funds would be properly allocated and properly spent.
I assured him that no process could ensure such an outcome.
A host of different public budgeting approaches exist. Many have significant virtues in terms of fostering a particular discipline or improving the extent to which our public investments match our collective intentions.
And all of them, given enough time and determination, can be gamed.
The only enduring “fix” to subverting processes and gaming systems lies in the interior of the individual and in the culture of the organization. It won’t be the rules that make us do right; we will do right because we wish to do right, and the rules, properly crafted, will help us recognize what right is.
This does not mean that we shouldn’t write laws, or policies, or procedures.
It does mean that, if we seek to achieve higher goals, we must plant their seeds of aspiration in those who will be tasked to achieve them, nurture their growth by affirmation and correction, and celebrate the harvest when it is reaped and the goals attained.
No easy feat, to be sure, and nothing one can “accomplish” and move on.
But rules alone will never be enough to make us better. We must desire to be better, believe we can be better and recognize when we are on the path that leads us to who we most would like to be, individually, as an organization, and as a society.