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TASK FORCES: THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY



A few weeks ago, we wrote an item for this website about the executive orders that were pouring out of the offices of the nine most recently elected governors. One of our findings was that “New task forces, study groups and advisory bodies were a dominant theme.”


That discovery led us to think about the many task forces we’ve seen established over the course of years. Some have certainly led to the kind of information necessary to implement a new policy. But all too many have been the governmental equivalent of treading water, exhausting time and resources while moving no place forward.


As John Bartle, dean of the College of Public Affairs and Community Service at the University of Nebraska in Omaha, wrote to us when we reached out to him for his thoughts, From what I have seen in state government (not universities), some task forces are created as a way to make it appear as if there is a response to a political demand, with no real intention of making any progress.”


We agree with Bartle’s comment, and take note that he’s only referring to “some” task forces. We're aware of many cases in which task forces are established with only the best of intentions. As Mark Funkhouser, President of Funkhouser & Associates, and former Mayor and Auditor of Kansas City Missouri told us, “Task forces can be useful when there is a policy question that must be answered and is outside or beyond the purview of the normal policy making process. Task forces work best when they are staffed by professionals with deep expertise in the area considered and those staff are empowered to bring well developed solutions to the problems being considered.”


One task force currently operating is The Governor’s Commission on the Future of Health Care in New York State a hugely ambitious undertaking. We contacted Patrick Orecki, director of State Studies at the Citizen Budget Commission to see what he had to say about it and here’s what he told us “We certainly think the task force is a good step. We've been calling for a permanent such body put in law, along with vastly improved data reporting for Medicaid. The trouble with the task force, currently, is that its mandate is largely undefined, and it is an entirely administrative function. Between those two facts, it seems like it could fall short and just be window dressing like other task forces before it.”


So, then what makes for a successful task force that leads a promising policy on a clear path toward implementation?


Tim Maniccia, Chief Fiscal Officer and Treasurer at Hudson River-Black River Regulating District had some rules of thumb for us. He believes that a successful task force should:


· Have clear desired outcome and measures of success;

· Secure commitment from organizers to go where the evidence leads;

· Appoint a small number of knowledgeable, dedicated people;

· Be sufficiently resourced and supported

· Be time limited, with opportunity to extend if preliminary findings yield other important questions that can be answered.


Without most of these elements in place task forces can follow the path described by an article in Fast Money, headlined “The First Effort to Regulate AI was a Spectacular Failure.” It described in 2019 the efforts made for the New York City Automated Decisions Task Force, and explained that “Excitingly, this was the first task force in the country to comprehensively analyze the impact of artificial intelligence on government. Looking at everything from predictive policing, to school assignments, to trash pickup, the people in this room were going to decide what role AI should play and what safeguards we should have.


“But that’s not what happened.


“Flash forward 18 months and the end of the process couldn’t be more dissimilar from its start. The nervous energy had been replaced with exhaustion. Our optimism that we’d be able to provide an outline for the ways that the New York City government should be using automated decision systems gave way to a fatalistic belief that we may not be able to tackle a problem this big after all.”


This was certainly an extreme case, but it’s a path that any significant task force can take unless it’s carefully planned for, established and utilized.



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