Do my eyes deceive me? Did I just read the Los Angeles Times proclaiming not only that the era of big government is over in the City of Angels, but also that non-government organizations – from the business community to civic organizations – must take a stronger role in service delivery and public policy?
Yes, I think I did.
In a startling editorial, entitled “A lean, not mean, City Hall,” the Old Tan Lady concludes, “Even in the best of times, it makes sense to move some city services away from the restrictions of the City Hall payroll and instead tap into the city’s underutilized business and nonprofit resources.”
So, where exactly were these calls for department consolidation and civil society empowerment during the “best of times”? I don’t remember, but one is left to wonder whether George Will took over the Times’ editorial board, when it recommends, “A successful Los Angeles will have to turn, increasingly, to that model for providing quality-of-life programs while focusing the budget on core functions such as public safety, street services and sanitation.”
Nothing like a $199 million budget gap to turn anyone in to a “communitarian conservative.”
Of course, the Times piece is just another entry into an ever-expanding volume, which could be entitled, Local Public Services: They’re not just by Government Anymore. Rather than a temporary retrenchment by local and state governments as they wait for the economic storms to blow over, more than a few pundits are proclaiming that we have entered a “new normal” where escalating public pension/benefit liabilities are combining with increased service responsibilities.
Harvard’s Stephen Goldsmith (also the former mayor of Indianapolis), recently wrote, “The current fiscal crisis isn’t a passing phase; it’s a new, enduring reality that must be confronted. Crisis is now the norm.”
But this is more than just a story about bloated governments. The recognition that services formerly offered by local governments are still necessary and desired by the public is leading to a fundamental reorientation of the government/citizen relationship.
I am reminded of the breath-taking story out of Kauai last year where a group of local residents took over a project from the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, which had been forecast to cost $4 million, and take at least a year. They completed it in less than a month with all donated manpower and materials – including $200,000.00 in steel. Parks departments from Colorado Springs to New Orleans are asking residents to “BYOM” (bring your own mower) to cut grass in city parks and open spaces. In other cities, volunteers from the civic, religious, and business communities are collaborating with local governments to keep libraries and community centers open.
As the Times editorial hints, this “new normal” is demanding a new leadership skill (or, maybe an old one?) for city, county, and state leaders: involving the public in maintaining important public services. The organization I work with has consulted on and supported several of these “participatory budgeting” efforts from Brea to Elk Grove. The most effective are led by mayors and city managers who look outside of their own institutional capacities to include (in some cases, beg) their residents to take a more active role in their communities. The discussion moves from having the public consult on budget cuts – unique in itself – to a call for participation in the policy solution. The aforementioned Goldsmith advises, “Public officials who wish to be on the right side of the right sizing movement must create structures that facilitate participation.”
While it is easy to look with some relief at the efficiencies forced upon our local and state governments through consolidations and furloughs, a less settling question is what responsibilities we as citizens are willing to assume?
Pete Peterson is the Executive Director, Common Sense California. For more, read Fox & Hounds Daily. Peterson’s views here do not necessarily represent those of CSC.