A Tendency of Our Times

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One reason the news out of Wisconsin has been so disorienting is that, for a hundred years, the political traditions of that state have meant something quite other than confrontation and the surrender of rights.

In The Wisconsin Idea, published in 1912 (with a foreword by Theodore Roosevelt), Charles McCarthy defined his subject broadly as “various ameliorative activities of the Wisconsin progressive movement, including those of the University.” Mainly he had in mind the legislative calendar of the year before, which included the passage of public health measures, a merit-based civil service system, tax reform, child-labor laws, industrial-safety programs, workers compensation, various orderly legislative procedures and, yes, recall petitions. (McCarthy was librarian to the state legislature.)

Gradually, the phrase was refined to mean something more specific, summarized by the slogan “the university in service to the state.” A more realistic description would be “the university as a fifth branch of government.” The idea was that expertise assembled at the University of Wisconsin, which was located just a mile or two from the state Capitol, in Madison, down along the shores of Lake Mendota, could supply powerful leverage to governmental activities of every sort, from summer farm institutes and plant pathology research to wage-and-hour legislation and public-utility management.

Wisconsin was considered to be the leading public university in those days. Its location in (or near) the capital city was key (in the Old Northwest, only Ohio and Minnesota had done the same).  In many cases, the professors didn’t merely draft the choices for legislators; they made them. So it is reasonable to wonder whether “the Wisconsin idea,” with its nimbus of progressive policies, has been exhausted after a hundred years, or if by ignoring, disavowing, even abrogating it, Gov. Scott Walker has somehow overreached.  Elections will answer the question, eventually.

One way to cast some light on the issue while we’re waiting is to ask what sort of fashionable book today might, in fifty or a hundred years, clarify the dominant intellectual tendencies of prescriptions for government in our times the way that McCarthy’s tract did for his, a hundred years ago?

My nominee is Collaborative Governance:  Private Roles for Public Goals in Turbulent Times, by John Donahue and Richard Zeckhauser, both of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. This is not simply because President Obama and Melinda Gates, of the Gates Foundation, were in Boston last week, illustrating its theme, touting a charter school. Nor is it the sober introduction to the book by Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who, as an aide to Edward M. Kennedy, prepared the arguments for a great deal of deregulatory legislation in the 1970s.

Others have made the argument before, including Martha Minow (Partners, Not Rivals, Privatization and the Public Good), Yochai Benkler (The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom), and Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom (Working Together: Collective Action, the Commons and Multiple Methods in Practice). In Government Failure versus Market Failure, Clifford Winston, of the Brookings Institution, has argued for more policy-oriented research designed to measure government performance.

But no one has summed up quite as concisely the transcendent idea behind the deregulation movement of the last fifty years as have Donahue and Zeckhauser:  that by carefully granting decision-making authority to private entities, profit and non-profit enterprises alike, government can achieve considerable gains in both efficiency and consent. Bring the knowledgeable party into the tent is the mantra of this crowd.

They offer the usual familiar examples, city parks and charter schools.  The management of New York’s Central Park was contracted out in the 1980s to a newly-created Central Park Conservancy with good results; monied interests in Chicago designed and built Millennium Park and filled it with public art to rave reviews (though little about the process could be described as efficient). Charter schools are springing up all over the country to compete with traditionally-administered public schools.

They discuss a slew of less familiar applications of the principle, too: the contracting out of a clean-up of the nuclear weapons manufactory at Rocky Flats, Colorado; the competition to design a hand-held water de-salinators for the US Navy; the invention of a Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals, a private organization that monitors compliance with government standards.

Failures are discussed, as well: the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, a grandiose Clinton administration initiative that foundered after George W. Bush became president; the attempt to fund the Federal Drug Administration with “user fees,”  destroyed its intramural research capabilities.

There are some useful analytic distinctions: a spectrum of discretion that distinguishes among mostly public responsibility (outsourced contracts); substantially shared authority (charter schools, fancy parks); and mostly private decision-making (religious private schools, corporate parks).  “Shared discretion also extracts a price,” Donahue and Zeckhauser write. “Authority becomes ambiguous, strategic complexity grows, and accountability breakdowns proliferate.”

To convey the role of a government official performing in a collaborative relationship, they offer the image of a circus ringmaster presiding beneath the big top:  “by tradition resplendent in top hat and tails, orchestrating a diverse tangle of activities,” keeping performers on their toes, improvising around the inevitable small shocks, engaging the audience between acts. Elsewhere they invoke the role of tummler, the jack-of-all-trades activities director traditionally employed in Catskills resorts.

I have my doubts about some of this. The chapter on charter schools waxes lyrical on the productivity of these start-ups while offering nary a word about their effects on the performance of traditional public schools – that’s not my idea of “wise public stewardship.” Pairing Millennium Park with health care reform in the final chapter is not very fruitful, especially since the authors omit altogether perhaps the single best example of collaborative governance in the United States, the Federal Reserve Board, with its system of privately-owned regional banks and overlapping echelons of executive authority and advisory boards. But then the authors are not compiling a field guide, or a blueprint. They are describing a dynamic program, a recently-discovered and now widely-shared social idea, not so much deregulation as re-regulation. In collaborative government, they have zeroed in on the nature of the change.

A hundred years ago, the idea that social science could assist in government was new enough to warrant a sobriquet – the Wisconsin Idea. These days, public/private partnership is the new enthusiasm. Note that the idea born (or at least named) a century ago in Wisconsin (having been mostly imported from Germany) is today alive and well and living in all fifty states. Once novel, the proposition that universities have important knowledge to offer has become part of the everyday intellectual furniture of our lives.

In a similar way, collaborative governing is becoming an aspect of things as familiar as advertising on a bus. The authors don’t make much of a distinction between entrepreneurship in the public realm and actual governance. But they are absolutely right about the central tendency of our age. It is collaboration. I don’t know where that leaves Gov. Walker – or, for that matter, the National Football League.  But it is a dangerous world, and cooperation is in the air.