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Why do government managers have such rude things to say about their legislatures?

The following piece about state legislatures and their relationship with executive branch managers is intended more as a teaser than anything else, We intend to do a great deal more reporting about the topic and publishing a longer piece in the future. As a result, what follows has been written based on 25-plus years of experience, and not any fresh reporting.

During the many years when we were working on the Government Performance Project (which ceased publication about nine years ago), one of the topics we covered regularly was “human resources.” We’d ask all sorts of questions about the quality of training, hiring practices, recruitment and so on. In the majority of cases in which we were going to have to give a state a lower-than-desirable evaluation, it was a rare thing that the HR directors and their deputies were hearing anything new.

No, they knew they needed more training, just as they knew they needed more up-to-date recruitment practices and more flexibility. So, why weren’t they doing what they thought they should be? The exceedingly commonplace answer was that the state legislature didn’t understand HR. To paraphrase Shakespeare, “The fault wasn’t in themselves it was in their legislative stars.”

We continue to hear the same story.

And we’re aware of a similar issue when it comes to performance management. Many states and cities have embarked on laudable performance management systems. And many have used them in order to improve the management of individual agencies. But what happens when it comes to using the information gathered for budgeting purposes? You guessed it. We’re told that legislatures just don’t follow through for a variety of reasons.

We won’t quote anyone here, but it’s startling to us how many of the executive branch managers with whom we speak use outright epithets when they’re talking about the legislative branch. The word “uninformed” comes up a whole lot. So does  “self-serving.”

Do we buy into this ourselves? We’re not in a position to have a strong opinion, except to say that we’ve interviewed many scores of legislators and virtually all of them seem to us to be very bright, genuinely interested in the public benefit and — politically infighting aside — willing to work with agencies to create a government that functions at high-grade levels.

So what do we take away from all of this? We think that if we were asked to assemble a list of the least functional elements of state government it would be the lack of good communications between the agencies and the legislators, notwithstanding all the hearings and opportunities for agency-folk to present their cases.

The executive branch people who complain that the legislature isn’t doing what they’d like because they don’t understand the issues, may be missing the fact that — especially in tough economic times — many legislators are forced to make next-to-impossible decisions. If you cut budgets for schools instead of roads, you’re anti-education. If you do it the other way around, then you just don’t understand what it’s like to spend an hour in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Split the difference and nobody is happy.

By the same token, we’d be disingenuous were we not to acknowledge a tendency among some who sit in state legislatures to aim their votes squarely at the ballot box. They may well know that reductions in training budgets are a short-term solution that will cost productivity in the future. But they also know that nobody tends to win an election based on the “Make Training Great Again” platform.

Can a more productive approach to better communications be developed. We’ll bet it can, in many states. But we  don’t have any ideas how, right now. That’s why we tried to take ourselves off the hook in the very first paragraph.


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