Regulation, Evaluation, and Accountability for Government programs

While I lean libertarian when it comes to the breadth of the government role in our lives, I know there are many critical areas where government plays an essential role in fulfilling our nations’ ideals, as the early prongs of the “We’re Better Than This” platform underscore. That said, government’s role in our lives should be limited to those essential functions and carried out with the lightest hand possible to fulfill the objectives.

To set the theme for this prong, I have two songs— Mr. Bureaucracy by a band called Paradox and Something for Nothing by Rush—and two great books, Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics by Richard Thaler and Comeback America: Turning the Country Around and Restoring Fiscal Responsibility by David Walker. Lots of inspiration and thought-provoking ideas here.

There are obviously weighty areas where the balance between government regulation and individual liberty is more challenging, like the fight against domestic terrorism that has now become front and center for all of us, and I’ll cover some of those bigger issues in later prongs of the platform. For this post, I want to focus on the many day-to-day functions of government that impact our lives in more mundane yet very important ways.

Government Funding: Federal funding for both private and nonprofit entities, whether through contracts or grants, and whether direct or through state and local governments, plays a critical role in carrying out the business of government. Public/private partnerships done well do a lot of good in the world and can have a lot of extra bang for the buck too.

That said, anyone who has ever bid on or received a government contract or grant can tell you the amount of inane bureaucratic requirements that come with it are incredibly inefficient and can be absolutely soul crushing. We of course should expect and require accountability for all government funding, but the focus should be on meeting the goals of the program and meeting basic financial responsibility requirements (e.g., a regular audit), not getting into the weeds of how the work gets done. We should use “nudges” to encourage good behavior rather than blunt instruments that turn everyone receiving funding into suspects rather than partners.

Regulation: Regulation should be viewed through a similar lens, focusing on the desired outcomes rather than how we get there so long as the goals are achieved legally and in accord with the larger goals of the program. With that lens, we should regulate with as light a hand as possible to achieve the desired outcomes, again using nudges whenever possible rather than one-size-fits-all requirements.  

Accountability: Whether funding or regulation, we know there unfortunately are always some who will try to game the system. But rather than operating from a default setting that tries to cover everything that could possibly go wrong when it is only a relatively few who are up to no good, we should have broad requirements in place (with appropriate nudges) that start with the assumption that people and organizations will act in good faith.

That strategy should be paired with periodic random spot audits everyone knows they are subject to (like the state trooper who you can come across at any time on the highway); that can weed out bad behavior, keep everyone honest, and help determine if other program changes need to be considered.  

And broader government funding programs or regulations should all be subject to a periodic review process to make sure they are efficiently and effectively meeting their original goals before they can continue. The book Comeback America I noted at the outset of this post suggests a test for periodically evaluating federal programs that offers a great place to start in this effort.

To sum up here, government has an integral role in fulfilling our nation’s ideals, but it should just be exercised with as light a hand as possible to achieve its goals. Easier said than done I know, but most definitely worth the fight.

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