Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Go Go Gadget Administrative Arms

A recently introduced bill at the Minnesota Legislature would "redesign" the way Minnesota counties deliver social services to Minnesota's most vulnerable citizens.

The redesign efforts have been led by the Association of Minnesota Counties (AMC) and the Minnesota Association of County Social Service Administrators (MACSSA). AMC and MACSSA contend that the structural relationship between the state and counties is unsustainable--that the money the state directs toward certain human services programs would be more efficiently allocated by local county-level administrators. In the same way that the states are policy "laboratories" for the nation, the counties, serving as the administrative arm of the state, can be incubators for innovative solutions to state-wide service delivery challenges.

MACSSA's 2009 Legislative position statement notes that government bureaucracies often grow incrementally in order to combat fraud and abuse, mitigate risk at the margins, and provide equal opportunity--hardly ignoble purposes. However, a thick bureaucracy can also slow the progress toward new ideas and trap local units in a sort of path-dependent "road to nowhere."

In a March 16, 2009 editorial to the Star Tribune, sums up the counties' argument: that if they are in the business of buying outcomes, not outputs, a radical accountability shift is needed.
[Murray County's] juvenile mental-health treatment costs dropped $60,000 from 2004-05 levels when two young people turned 18 and moved away, [AMC director Jim] Mulder said. But state rules required the county to keep spending at the former level. The rule, not actual need for services, drove spending, he said.
The complexity of human services funding streams between federal, state, and local levels of government makes elimination of these spending mandates (a.k.a. "maintenance of effort") a sticky political issue. From the Strib:
Eliminating some county mandates, especially those that require counties to spend at prescribed "maintenance of effort" levels to help snare federal matching funds, could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.
State lawmakers seem stuck in a terrible bind. All things equal, it seems perfectly reasonable to eliminate requirements that counties spend money needlessly. However, lifting these spending mandates would deepen a state budget deficit projected north of $6 billion (exclusive of federal aid).

Opponents of mandate elimination assert that mandates can work to level the playing field--that left to their own devices, some counties might myopically underspend in some areas--e.g. mental health services, public libraries, or other "public good"-type human services--leaving future taxpayers to foot the bill. All Minnesotans would agree that it would be unacceptable to backslide to a system in which, as one mental-health advocate put it, "some counties' idea of a mental-health program was a bus ticket to Minneapolis."

What do you think? Do local government spending mandates stifle innovation? Do they mandate anything but mediocrity? Does this debate question the adequacy of representative democracy (at the local level) in making human services spending decisions?

One county administrator I met last summer told me, "I'm not opposed to mandates. I'm opposed to ineffective mandates." A separate bill introduced last month in the House would tighten the circumstances under which the state could impose mandates on local units of government. It is unclear how this bill would complement the aforementioned redesign efforts.

I think that in recent months, both sides have moderated somewhat. As it seems likely that an effective solution to this structural problem lies somewhere in the middle, I'm hopeful that meaningful reform will emerge from the debate.

1 comment:

  1. Bjorn, the post is excellent! I felt somewhat disappointed though when I clicked the link to "bus ticket to Minneapolis" :)