Anyone who has worked with the press knows that sometimes quotes can be taken out of context or inadequately represent what someone was trying to get across. But there are also occasions when the spokesperson’s attitude and intent are pretty darn clear.
So it has been with several recent, but deeply-interconnected News Journal stories related to the state budget, schools and potential conflicts of interest. Across all these reports and the official comments they contain, it is hard not to come away with the impression that we have a serious problem with government accountability and self-awareness – a problem rooted in what is a fundamental cultural chasm between Delaware’s reigning political class and the rest of us.
The first of these examples was the Senate Finance Committee chairman’s dismissive response to a detailed new report by the nonpartisan Business Roundtable outlining significant challenges to the state budget. This senior member of the Senate essentially told leaders of the Delaware business community to butt out. “But quite often,” he quipped, referring to the Roundtable’s recommendations, “free advice is worth the same amount you are paying for it.”
Coincidentally, the same day the state’s CEOs called for critical financial and economic reforms, another report was issued and this one showed that only half of Delaware public school students are proficient in English and fewer than 40 percent are at level in math. You might think such results would lead to the declaration of a state of emergency in our schools.
Instead, a senior administration official offered that “our students performed better than anticipated.” The State Board of Education Vice President agreed that “the results were better than projected” and the top education employee lobbyist equivocated that one test “is not a complete picture of a child’s level and progress.”
The third related article was Jonathan Starkey’s startling exposé on the tangled web of interests around a former state representative including his appointment to a $144,000 state job and the revelation of his ownership of a for-profit addiction counseling business with millions of dollars in state contracts.
Starkey’s reporting uncovered a shaky track record for the business, and raised unanswered questions about the lack of disclosure of the elected official’s financial interests as well as how he gained the new position without a competitive process or any reference or background checks.
When asked about the hiring and presented with information about the company’s troubled past, the response of the cabinet secretary who personally hand-selected the politician was disappointing, bordering on the contemptuous. “If people want to be critical of that, shame on you,” she said.
These responses are deflating and seem tone deaf. They reflect the inevitable drift of an oligarchical, upside down mentality among many in power: the people serve government and not the other way around.
The problem is that during a time of such limited diversity of vision in managing our state, and through an era that has seen government itself become by far the state’s largest – and most influential – employer, Delaware has become a poorer, older and less healthy state.
Which brings us back to the Business Roundtable and their report.
Business is not just another stakeholder in the state’s future. Our country thrives in large measure due to our uniquely successful industry and commerce and our government was created to serve and protect free people in the free practice of those enterprises. Our government cannot exist without a private sector strong enough to fund it.
As the Pope and Bernie Sanders remind us, the regulation and taxing of businesses help keep the more rapacious forms of the capitalistic model in check. We have agreed as a people that government will manage significant responsibilities that private citizens cannot. But for many in power, that governmental-nonprofit-consulting economy is all they know. Sometimes that can result in a narrow and isolated perspective.
That is why the Business Roundtable’s robust reentry into the policy precincts of state life is so important and welcome. We want business to be interested in government issues beyond those areas directly impacting their particular industries, things that matter to everyone like schools, infrastructure and public safety. We need their employees to be encouraged and supported in engaging in the political process.
There is also much that government managers and their agencies can learn from the private sector. This is not to say that government can be ‘run like a business’ or that every company is knocking it out of the park. But businesses like those represented on the Roundtable know that they cannot sit still – technological and global forces push them to get smarter every day and, to attract top talent, be great places to work. In their world, complacency and entitlement are telltale signs of doom.
Fortunately for us, the Roundtable CEOs are committed to Delaware. They see the future of their firms and the state as one. But it appears likely that their involvement in the political process may require more than just issuing reports to get the attention of those in power.
That kind of engagement and leadership is essential if we are going to change a culture apparently willing to live with results that surely wouldn’t cut it for long in their companies.