Measuring the cost of government failure


By Bruce Lisman

When pointing out how our government has failed us, the large budget deficit and the failed rollout of Vermont Health Connect are headliners. But so is the stubborn insistence by the governor and many legislators that the education system and its ruinous funding system work for Vermonters. They don’t.

Even the proposed solutions to the budget deficit — a relentless search for increased fees, taxes and a new payroll tax — suggest our governor has learned little from four years of budget mismanagement. Add to that the newly proposed education reforms, which would do little to solve our funding problems while advocating for forced consolidation of school districts that is unsupported by available research.

Other failures abound too: an unwillingness to focus on affordability, the state of our economy, the underwhelming management and leadership of our state’s employees, dysfunction within the Agency of Human Services and its Department for Children and Families, an inability to move the needle on poverty and food vulnerability and the failed road to a single-payer system that has consumed scarce resources even as the real growth in health care costs declined to under 2 percent.

There’s a cost to failure. The people of Vermont will fund the deficit, pay for the health care reform experiment and continue to pay mounting property taxes. Financial resources that might be dedicated to important social services have been wasted. The Vermont Food Bank and other organizations are struggling to provide services to those in need. And our belief in the reliability, competence and credibility of our government has been undermined — an incalculable cost of failure.

It’s easy for politicians to blame us. After all, we’ve been apathetic about voting, we can be unaware of important issues, some of us aren’t brave enough to speak out publicly, and many ask more of our government than we ask of ourselves. We could have done better and so could they.

The State of Vermont is a very large enterprise, fiscally and by measure of the number of employees it employs, and it should be managed as such. We are well beyond quick fixes. Changing the direction of our state will not happen overnight.

But, what does government success look like? To me, it’s a budget that is managed within the context of our economic growth and that of the country with enough foresight not to expand programs with one-time monies. It’s having very competent managers who will execute on a clear set of strategic priorities that provide a cogent vision for the future. It’s having a culture of performance and of continuous self-improvement, a reinvigorated state employee workforce, program logic, a reintroduction of a structured process for organizational renewal, and a strategic budget that tells Vermonters the cost of those priorities.

Economic renewal should be the preeminent priority. I’ve offered specifics about how we might start to re-energize our economy and look forward to working with my colleagues on the Economic Development Committee.

Vermont must establish a plan, steps to achieve goals, costs, and a way to measure results. One important outcome of this approach is to better ensure the predictability of government policies and actions. It’s good for everyone.

Most importantly, it’s a government that executes on the promises it’s made to the people of Vermont.

Bruce Lisman is a founder of Campaign for Vermont. He lives in Shelburne.