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The Risk of Doing Something

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michael R. Ford
October 11, 2020

In times of crisis there is immense pressure placed on those in positions of authority to do something. Lack of official action by government can give the impression that officials are incapable of solving a crisis, or worst yet, simply do not care enough to do so. This dynamic is playing out across the country as state and local governments struggle to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. My home of Oshkosh, WI received some unwanted attention as we rose to the top of the New York Times hot spot list last week, spurring friends and strangers alike to demand we do something about it.

The demand for action is natural, but fraught with potential problems. I compare the demand for a quick legislative response to COVID-19 to the faulty promise of a miracle treatment for the disease itself. A single legislative action cannot stop the disruptions caused by COVID-19 any more than hydroxychloroquine can instantly cure COVID-19. Further, just like hydroxychloroquine, quick-fix legislation could have serious side-effects that may make things worse regardless of positive intent.

Policy is a blunt instrument. All policies have consequences that are unknown at the time of passage. The machinery of government is slow, in part, so policymakers and agencies can fully understand the real-world impacts of proposed legislation. The committee process triages whether a policy change is needed or viable. The reviews by state agencies and local legal departments give the public a clearer understanding of the legal and fiscal impacts of proposed legislation. Public hearings give residents and businesses a chance to voice their opinion directly to lawmakers. Requirements for more than one reading create a cooling off period to allow potential negative impacts to come to light. Even after passage (at the state level) we often have the administrative rules process to set the rules for implementation.

Sometimes the perils of moving too fast are quickly obvious. Early in my career I was working to pass a piece of legislation, and during drafting, it was made clear that it violated the state constitution and could not be implemented. In that case time and energy had been wasted, but no one was harmed. Far more harmful are cases where well-intended policies lead to long-term structural consequences.

Consider the case of Teach for America. The idea of placing non-traditionally trained teachers into urban classrooms was billed as a way to reform an ineffective approach to human capital in K-12 education. There was little disagreement that urban schools in the United States faced serious challenges that were not being met. At one point, Wisconsin actually put a direct expenditure for Teach for America in the state budget in order to draw the program into Milwaukee schools. Working in education reform at the time, I supported it. I was in agreement with the legislators who argued that something, no matter how untested, had to be better than the status-quo.

Today, after much study and debate, the collective impact of Teach for America on educational outcomes is fairly minimal, and in some cases even harmful. The opportunity cost of Teach for America is harder to define, but all the resources expended in pushing and implementing the policy idea could have been used elsewhere. Would that have made a difference? I do not know, but this is worth considering.

My own research suggests the problem may lie in the concept of productivity in governing boards. A highly functioning governing board with strong group dynamics that is active in policymaking generally leads to positive outcomes. A dysfunctional governing body that is passive causes no harm. Its members argue about non-substantive issues, and ultimately fail to take meaningful action. But, a dysfunctional governing body that is active in policymaking can lead to great harm. An active dysfunctional board is doing the wrong thing, defined as not addressing the needs of its stakeholders, and the board is doing it efficiently.

I am not suggesting the appropriate governing response to COVID-19 (or anything else) is to do nothing. The experience of the past six months has shown the damage that a lack of a coherent response to a pressing crisis can inflict. But a knee jerk policy response is not flexible, and not always the right answer to a crisis. To manage a crisis, managers need the flexibility to make decisions within a framework approved by a legislative body. This is why state and local statutes include language on emergency declarations. Unfortunately for places like Wisconsin, judicial overreach has limited administrative powers, placing policymakers in a no-win position of considering policy that could, in the end, cause more damage than doing nothing.

Author: Michael R. Ford is an associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves as the president of the Midwest Public Affairs Conference, and as an elected member of the Oshkosh, WI Common Council.

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