This is the second installment of a four-part series examining Delaware’s economic and social challenges and opportunities to secure the state’s future. Read the first here.
The complex, interconnected problems facing our state point to an urgent need for radical reform. And that transformation must begin with our government. Why? Like it or not, government has huge influence over state planning and policy – our education system, infrastructure and social policies. An outdated and bloated structure limits the ability of our policymakers to plan and think strategically. They become further and further removed from the problems they are charged to fix and the opportunities they should be seizing. Creativity is neither rewarded nor incentivized and therefore government is unlikely to use its authority and influence to lead others toward embracing much needed change themselves.[i]
Government is long overdue serious scrutiny to ensure it is delivering effectively on a tightly-defined mission and being held accountable for successfully accomplishing same.
In fact, it has been more than 40 years since we took a close look at how our government is organized. Delaware’s current cabinet government was put into place in the administration of Russell Peterson, when he moved the state from the antiquated and crony-ridden commission model. But as the world around it has changed, our state government has been pulling a Rip Van Winkle – snoozing away, occasionally sleep-walking long enough to randomly bolt-on new departments and functions to the structure Gov. Peterson put into place.[ii]
What thriving organizations can you name today that have not fundamentally rethought and overhauled their missions, operations and approaches from four decades past? Everything about the way we live and work and play has changed in that time and so too should the government we fund to serve us.
Standing athwart this reform is the simple (and unfortunate) fact that the public sector is the state’s largest employer. That means that government itself is a constituency, and a powerful one at that. Policymaking in Delaware has too often become inverted, a perverse, upside down approach where the cost, size and influence of our government itself are routinely driving policy decisions by the administration and legislature. And with so many legislators themselves employees of government agencies or organizations that receive state funding, or retirees of both, it is an entirely predictable outcome.
Finally, we should transform our government is because it is what our politicians are already paid to do. They are elected to office to change things, not preside over some kind of static spoils system. Unlike, say, improving the local real estate market or getting a big company to put 2,000 jobs in Wilmington, the shape and size and priorities of our state government – which so clearly impact our economic and social vitality – are entirely in our control. That is, they can be directly and immediately impacted by legislation.
Our political leaders should be asking, what do we really need from a government in the second half of the 21st century and how do we get there?
Next: Transforming Land Use
[i] One example of this complacency is the recent decision by the state to award multiple arts organizations millions of dollars to “help offset reductions in corporate donations and flat individual giving…,” money that “was necessary to support organizations grappling with dwindling attendance, donations and investment returns.” Now, we are all rooting for the Art Museum and the Grand and other pillars of local culture, but unfortunately a temporary, one-time infusion of taxpayer funds (with the requirement of recipients taking a few financial management classes) is not going to do anything to change systemic, long-term socio-economic, generational and demographic issues impacting attendance and donations. Instead of writing checks, the state had a golden opportunity to carefully scrutinize the strategic plans of these groups, their past financial performance, board governance and financial support, and future prospects. Perhaps the state’s influence might have helped develop a broader strategy that can actually lead to a thriving arts scene in Delaware that is sustainable and differentiated.