Government as a Barrier to... Everything

I have had experience on several occasions attempting to bring private solutions (at no cost to the city government) to certain municipal problems.  The general approach to such offers, which seems to be similar in every city I have lived in, is to get together a meeting of every single government authority that could possibly have some tangential jurisdiction over the particular problem (e.g, city, county, state, highways, parks, water, environment, etc. etc.).  In this meeting, the discussion goes around the table, with every single participant adding another reason why the proposal is a problem and/or another roadblock or required approval.  This is not an exaggeration - I can't remember one person in such a meeting try to fix a problem or make something happen.  Everyone in government has an incentive system, it seems, that revolves around avoiding risk and preventing change. 

That is why I know that this story is typical of government, not an aberration:

LSU hospital officials began planning for a temporary network of
neighborhood clinics in early November 2005, barely two months after
Hurricane Katrina knocked Charity Hospital out of commission and threw
health-care services for many of the city's uninsured into disarray.

Eight months later, in late June and early July, FEMA delivered the
trailers to New Orleans, with the $761,000 bill picked up by the
federal government.

It wasn't until last week that the New Orleans City Council agreed
to temporarily waive the city's zoning code to allow the trailers to be
located at six schools around the city -- three on the east bank and
three in Algiers -- for two years.

In between fell more than 100 meetings and dozens of e-mails about
the issue involving LSU executives and officials at the city, state and
federal levels. And the journey is not over. The zoning waivers still
need approval from Mayor Ray Nagin, which cannot occur until next week
at the earliest, as well as permits from the city that could take up to
six months to acquire.


  1. Matt:

    Bureaucrats don't solve problems...they MANAGE problems. If the problem their job exists to manage gets solved, they run the risk of looking redundant and getting fired. But as long as the problem is still around (and preferably getting bigger and more intense) they have lots of excuses to expand their power base.

    Much as I love to slag on government, I've seen the same effect in every organization I've ever worked with that was large enough to have acquired tumors of "middle management".

  2. Noumenon:

    Yeah, I was going to say, sounds exactly like what would happen if someone from my factory floor tried to suggest an improvement that didn't come from the managers.

  3. M. Hodak:

    The incentive is simpler than that. Public servants are paid to show up. If they ever felt the urge to do more than the minimum required to collect their paycheck, the urge would be squeezed out of them by their often-unionized colleagues. Doing more than the minimum doesn't just require more work now, it creates higher expectations for the future, and who needs that?

    It's true, as the other commenters suggest, that bureaucracy is similar in public or private organizations. But private companies don't set their own expectations--they're set by competition. Government workers don't have to worry about meeting, let alone exceeding, minimum expectations because government faces no competition.

  4. markm:

    Yes. Matt and Noumenon might start looking for new jobs soon - because somewhere out there is a potential competitor that does not allow managers to act like this, and when they zero in on your market segment, your employers are going to wind up in massive layoffs.