Simple solutions not allowed
Nov. 26, 2012
by Ivan Raconteur

I have the opportunity to attend a lot of government meetings, and I often observe things that cause me to scratch the old coconut in a quizzical fashion.

During one recent meeting, for example, a county board approved two items that seemed, to a casual observer, to be contradictory.

One item involved offering a “Healthy Communities Partnership program” to all county employees.

Under this program, county employees will be able to participate in health screenings on work time.

The other item approved by the board was a revised parking map, which specifies the reserved parking spots allocated to each department. Some of these spots are in the parking garage, and others are in various lots around the government center.

Apparently, when one is a county employee, one’s parking space is a matter of some prestige, and parking assignments were researched discussed by the building committee before being submitted for consideration by the county board.

Sometimes, the allocation of reserved parking spaces is justified out of a concern for employee security. I never quite understand this, though, since the concentration of armed law enforcement officers found in the general area of the government center must be among the highest in the county. One can’t swing a cat in the vicinity of the center without hitting a deputy or other peace officer. It must be one of the safest places around.

People in the private sector all across the county park in far more remote and potentially dangerous places, but we don’t hear much about concern for their safety.

Anyway, when I was reading the agenda, it seemed to me that county could have simplified things by simply mandating that staff members park in the most distant portion of the west parking lot, rather than in spots nearer their offices.

The employees might enjoy a brisk walk of a few extra steps when arriving or departing, and the extra activity might reduce the need for the county to approve special programs designed to increase the staff’s level of physical activity.

After all, according to the promotional material for the program approved for county employees, nearly 40 percent of all deaths in the US are contributed to four behaviors, and number two on the list is inadequate physical activity.

The combination of the health initiative and parking discussion struck me as just another example of the phenomenon illustrated by people who will circle around the parking lot at a fitness center in their cars, waiting for a spot near the door. They may be there to get some exercise, but they apparently don’t want to get too much exercise.

I suppose the problem is I see things too simply. That often seems the case when I observe the activities of government.

Government is fraught with programs that are redundant or contradictory.

These contradictions may seem obvious to those of us in the private sector, but those in government will defend their pet programs vigorously.

The difficulty is that in addition to the underlying inefficiency, it increases the cost of government because we are paying multiple agencies to accomplish the same or similar things, and sometimes, the taxpayers are paying for both sides of an issue.

For example, to an ordinary citizen, it might seem contradictory when the US uses tax dollars to send weapons, equipment, and even personnel into somebody else’s conflict elsewhere in the world, and then uses more tax dollars to rebuild the damage caused by the fighting and provide aid to those who were hurt by it.

I have never quite understood that. Using governmental logic, however, it makes perfect sense.

It might seem a bit of a stretch to compare employee fitness to foreign aid, but I don’t think the situations are all that different.

Whether we are talking about initiatives at the local level, or broad foreign policies, it seems to me it would make sense to first figure out exactly what we are trying to accomplish, and then determine the most efficient way to accomplish it.

That seems like such a simple concept, but it is not the way government works at all.

I don’t suppose things will ever change, though.

Even if there was any appetite on the part of governmental entities to change (and one might question whether there is), the system is designed to resist change.

If a governmental body made the decision that it wanted to streamline operations, it would first need to have a lot of meetings to talk about it.

Then, it would have some more meetings about how to go about deciding what should be changed. Then, it would spend some time putting together a request for proposals from outside experts. Next, it would hire an absurdly expensive outside consultant to study the situation and figure out how things are done now, before even beginning the process of deciding how they could be done better.

Eventually, the consultant would come up with a proposal, which is likely to be elaborate, rather than simple, in order to justify the consultant’s hefty fees.

Then, there would be more meetings to explain the proposal, and meetings to gather input about the proposal, and make revisions.

In the end, the new improved system would probably be more expensive and cumbersome than the mess they set out to fix.

Simple solutions and government just don’t mix.

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