How about “Legislative Impact Statements”?

Today’s Washington Post column by Allan Sloan includes the following:

“Cash for Clunkers.” It was a well-intentioned plan that was supposed to increase consumer confidence, spur fuel efficiency, jump-start the auto industry and help create American jobs. Instead, it disproportionately benefited foreign automakers, which create fewer North American jobs per car dollar than the Detroit Three do. And sales came mostly from inventory, doing little to increase production and jobs. What’s more, by junking clunkers, the program removed many low-end vehicles from the used-car market, running up prices for the lower-income people who’d normally buy them. So we hurt the people most in need of help, while throwing taxpayer dollars down the drain. As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

It’s easy to throw up your hands when talking about “unintended consequences,’ but none of these can really be said to be “unforeseeable consequences.” In hindsight they look pretty obvious to me! And I believe that a little foresight would have revealed them as well.

We already have Environmental Impact Statements; they’re either famous or infamous, depending on your viewpoint. There are also financial impact statements: how much will this bill cost, or this revenue measure raise?

Maybe we need to have the Congress publish “Legislative Impact Statements” that list what the legislators think will happen, both good and bad, so that we can judge afterwards how much they thought about what they were doing?

Guy Fawkes and Child Support Payments in Maryland

A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.

Samuel Johnson, lexicographer (1709-1784)


November Fifth is known in Great Britain as “Guy Fawkes Day,” named in honor of the man who was caught trying to execute a plot to blow up the English Parliament in 1605.

American legislators sometimes neglect to do things so blindingly obvious that Guy Fawkes almost becomes a sympathetic figure!

This year’s candidate for the first Annual Guy Fawkes Award for Legislative Obtuseness (the “AGFALO”) goes to the Maryland Legislature, which just now is considering increasing Maryland’s state guidelines for child support payments – for the first time in twenty years!

According to the story in the Washington Post, Maryland (a) has the highest per capita income in the United States, (b) is forty-first in what parents pay for child support, and (c) obviously has no sense of shame). This affects half a million children in the state. Half a million!

The good news is that they’re considering raising the support payment guidelines; the bad news is that the legislation also contains a provision lowering the support payments for lower income parents!

But the issue is not whether Maryland should raise the payment levels, or should have done so in 2007 when the District of Columbia did. Or whether Virginia “does a better job” since theirs were raised in 1995.

The issue is far simpler than that: Should the vagaries of the legislative calendar and the shifting winds of politics determine whether kids in broken homes get fed? Viewed in this light, it becomes a design of government issue!

What does Maryland have that’s more precious than its children? How will Maryland take care of people who grow up in homes that can’t afford to feed and clothe them, or help them focus on education for the jobs of tomorrow?

Wouldn’t it also help keep families together, and keep the kids on track, if the parents knew in advance  that they faced stiff child support payments?  Those payments must have been a joke for the past ten years!

Now, what could be simpler than INDEXING the guidelines to the Consumer Price Index?  Or some other index that accounts for inflation? Is this so hard? It seems to work well for Social Security, and I bet it works well for the pensions of Maryland’s legislators and staff!

Given that the US Congress has somehow neglected to index the minimum wage, even though some foreign countries and even some of the states have done so, I sometimes wonder. (see this blog, page 33)

Are all legislators both (a) so comfortable within their work lives and (b) so worried about possibly getting divorced that they can’t see the damage they are doing to our image of effective government, much less the harm that’s done to poor individuals and the future of America?

For he’s a jolly AGFALO; For he’s a jolly AGFALO; For he’s a jolly AGFALO — Which nobody can deny!


[BTW, enforcing the child support payments is also a major problem that is not addressed here, nor is it addressed well in Maryland or elsewhere.]


ADDENDUM: I attended a public meeting about the proposed child support guideline revisions, and was subsequently quoted in the Annapolis Capitol newspaper.

Some quotations related to Design of Government

Here are some of the quotations I’ve used to make more vivid the issues involved in the design (and operation!) of government. I gave them out most recently when teaching at the School of Public Service at St. Albans School, here in Washington, DC.


“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”  — Thomas Jefferson


“Deeply embedded somewhere in our thoughts or wishes — no doubt in some corner of the brain that is immune to factual evidence — is the belief that public institutions and programs exist to serve public needs. In this perhaps naive view, the links of the chain of public action begin with the identification of a need of society, by, say, a civic-minded group; next, measures to meet the need are debated and decided upon; and, finally, some institutional arrangement is made, and people set to work. It’s hard to help noticing, though, that in actuality things proceed, as often as not, in quite a different sequence. In this other sequence, the chain begins with the institutional arrangement, and only then is a need sought out — a need that will justify the continuing functioning of the institution. In other words, instead of starting with a problem and looking for an answer one starts with an answer and looks for the problem.” — The New Yorker


“Logic has never been the sole underlying principle of the development of governmental institutions.”– Elliot Richardson, January 23, 1976


“…in a computerized age…there may be a tendency to mistake data for wisdom, just as there has always been a tendency to confuse logic with values, and intelligence with insight. Unobstructed access to facts can produce unlimited good only if it is matched by the desire and ability to find out what they mean and where they would lead.”

“The biggest single need in computer technology is not for improved circuitry, or enlarged capacity, or prolonged memory, or miniaturized containers but for better questions and better use of the answers.” — Norman Cousins, in “The Computer and the Poet” Saturday Review, July 23, 1966


“He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars:

General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite & flatterer,

For Art & Science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars

And not in generalizing Demonstrations of the Rational Power.”

— William Blake, in Jerusalem, 1820


“There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” — Robert Kennedy

Those who “look at things the way they are, and ask why” are at best managers.

Those who “dream of things that never were, and ask why not” are often leaders.

Be a leader…

WaPo Pundit Contest: Sigh! (not even a bridesmaid)

You may know that the Washington Post is holding a contest for their next Post Pundit. Here are the first round winners.

Yes, I applied. No, I wasn’t chosen. Of course, I’m a “one-trick pony,” so I wasn’t too surprised. And if you’re reading this, you already know the trick…

They asked for a 400 word essay and a 100 word statement of why you should be chosen. See below. I’ve put links into the essay, and expanded the statement slightly.


How Well Is Our Government Designed?

Did Congressman Elton Gallegly (D, CA) ever think that his “Crush Video” law, protecting kittens and mice, would cause the stampede of elephants to the Supreme Court in United States v. Stevens? The elephants, from the New York Times and National Public Radio to the National Rifle Association, have paid lawyers handsomely. Would opening draft legislation to public comment via the Internet help prevent such unintentional consequences?

The government spent this spring “adjusting” the analog-to-digital TV transition process, addressing delays, communication problems, underfunding, and finally oversubscription. The program had trouble reaching poor, elderly, rural, and non-English-speaking citizens – those who really need emergency warnings. Did anyone know about Everett Rogers’ work on the communication of innovations?

The small staff at Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) gives tiny grants and focuses on policy and research. No surprise that the surge in coupon applications “crashed” their program. And so no surprise when the “Cash for Clunkers” surge crashed at another small agency, Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Memo to the Congress: Don’t give any shipbuilding contracts to Seven-Eleven.

The computer model for costing health insurance proposals at the Congressional Budget Office gets no third-party review of its assumptions or internal workings, according to a story in the Washington Post. CBO’s report to Chairman Baucus on its latest results has no confidence intervals, either. “Your mileage may vary,” as Phil Ellis says, but CBO is not estimating by how much.

Has the health insurance industry got better computer models that can second- (or third-) guess CBO’s? The better their models, the better their negotiating strategies.

Phil Angelides’ Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission faces far more difficult challenges than the Pecora Commission of 1933.  Computers and telecommunications have made the world’s financial system far more complex and more interrelated. And the financial industry has long been able to afford excellent computer modeling. If the Angelides Commission is to dredge its recommendations for loopholes and unintended consequences, it must have access to even better models. Otherwise, the industry will out-game the Commission every time.

Keeping the global financial system “between the ditches” throughout this century will require more than modeling. The Commission needs expertise in several post-WWII disciplines, including game theorychaos theory, and complexity itself.

‘Intelligent design’ deserves a seat at the table in Washington. The private sector is ahead of us again. See Business Week’s Special Report on Design Thinking.

As Jimmy Carter learned to ask, “Why not the best?”


My unique policy perspective: Thirty years a Fed, nineteen as a Senior Executive. Served in seven Cabinet departments, five agencies, and the White House under both Ford and Clinton.

I first wrote about ‘designing government’ during the Carter Administration in a paper now on my blog.

As a Deputy Director of Al Gore’s National Performance Review, I learned that private sector innovation must be continually infused into government.

Sadly, the Federal government only looked to the private sector for inspiration in an organized way four times during the 20th century: the Brownlow Committee (1937) the Hoover Commissions (1947 & 1953), the Grace Commission in 1982, and Vice President Gore’s National Performance Review (1993).

While with Gore I oversaw another report on program design. Same problems, twenty years later.

Harvard’62, Georgetown Law’72

Who’s Who in America (first listed in 1984)

Kennedy School’s Innovation Awards Program judge

Full resume here.