Fixing Government: Democracy In Action

Around the world last week, on the eastern and western coasts of the United States and in the Indian capital city of New Delhi, citizens were confronted with a trio of cases that collectively highlighted the very worst aspects of democratic government. In each case, individuals inside or outside of government felt compelled to take drastic action to remedy an embarrassing crisis.

In Newark, New Jersey, the city’s poorly performing school system gratefully accepted a financial bailout from Facebook founder and billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, who announced a mammoth donation of $100 million to finance critical improvements. In Bell, California, law enforcement officials announced the arrest of eight current and former city executives and managers on charges of gross corruption. And in New Delhi, India, government officials vowed to make emergency repairs to newly constructed sports facilities that are literally crumbling away in advance of next week’s Commonwealth Games.

Were these isolated incidents, or did they collectively represent a worrisome pattern of government neglect? And if so, what does it say about the capabilities of democratic governments in places like America and India to address their own internal problems?

Troublesome Patterns

Regrettably, none of these three events appeared to represent an isolated incident. Quite the contrary, all three constituted embarrassing culminations of years of government neglect and ineptitude across a wide range of circumstances and situations.

The public school system of New Jersey, for instance, has long been criticized for poor performance; in fact, it recently lost $400 million (i.e. an amount that is more than four times the size of Zuckerberg’s donation) in federal funding on an administrative application error. Likewise, government corruption has plagued California throughout the twentieth century; it served as the central theme for the plot of the 1974 film Chinatown, which won the Academy Award for best screenplay. And critics in India have complained for years about the nation’s inability to maintain its critical infrastructure.

Thus, these recent events were no freak occurrences that struck otherwise competent government administrations. Indeed, they drew public attention to typical, albeit unusually colorful, examples of governmental cultures of incompetence and corruption.

In a Word, Why?

Of course, any complex problem can be traced to a multitude of causes; malfunctioning governments are no exception to this rule. Nevertheless, when reviewing these three cases, one is struck by a sense that these problems were simply never considered priorities by citizens or their representatives. Instead, individuals appeared to be preoccupied by other matters, thereby allowing these problems to fester until they exploded in the news.

New Jersey and California voters, for instance, may have been far more interested in the rough house political style of Governor Chris Christie and the glamorous film star activities of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger than in the policy debates that affect education funding and municipal oversight functions. And Indian citizens may have never exhibited the zeal for international showmanship that drove China’s focus on constructing first-class infrastructure for the Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai World Expo.

The key principle of enterprise risk management is the interplay between preventive, proactive functions and responsive, reactive functions. To put it simply, risk managers believe that it sometimes makes perfect sense to do everything possible to prevent a problem from occurring, and yet other times it makes more sense to allow a problem to happen and then deal with the consequences. American and Indian citizens may have chosen the latter option in these three cases, hoping for the best and then regrettably facing the worst.

Panetta’s Philosophy

From this perspective, one might take heart in the knowledge that government officials did belatedly take action to address this trio of problems. After all, charismatic Newark Mayor Cory Booker succeeded in obtaining the $100 million pledge from Mr. Zuckerberg. California Attorney General Jerry Brown moved against the infamous Bell Eight, vowing to prosecute them to the full extent of the law. And the Indian government now appears to be making critical repairs to the facilities of the Commonwealth Games.

Furthermore, public scrutiny over government performance in both nations is intensifying in dramatic ways. The American election season is now dominated by boisterous crowds that harken to the zealous Boston Tea Party revolutionaries of 1773. And Indian critics, free to voice their opinions in their nation’s open democratic system, are rallying public opinion to the side of clean and effective governance. Although disruptive, these demanding voices are focusing their citizenry on the activities of their own elected representatives.

CIA Director Leon Panetta recently told Politico that “Democracy can be ugly, depressing and frustrating but it is what determines our fate as a nation. We govern by leadership or crisis. Unfortunately, today, we largely govern by crisis.” Although one may wince in pain while watching developments unfold in Newark, Bell, and New Delhi, it might be helpful to keep in mind that we are, in fact, watching democratic governments in action.