Below are comments delivered by former chair, Bill Schubart (1998-2000) during Chairmen’s Circle panel at VBR’s 2012 Summer Membership Meeting on June 14, 2012.
At 67, and barely able to remember the names of my extended family members, I decided it was best to leave recollections of this organizations’ past to the youngsters in the group and instead to suggest a few ideas for our focus in the years ahead.
My first recommendation would be that the organization take up the challenge of making Vermont more transparent. Vermont government has one of the lowest transparency ratings of any state in the Union. This may be due to our small size, the strength of our communities, our tradition of mutual trust, or possibly just our lack of commitment, our dysfunctional information systems, and naiveté. Look at the rash of local embezzlements recently. Our public records laws are a rabbit warren of comfortable and convenient exemptions and until recently had no enforcement. It may come as a shock to many of you that the most transparent State in the country is Texas.
Transparency means that the business of governance is understood by and accessible to its citizens, that laws, regulations, and executive initiatives have a stated social or economic good with clear measurements that are reported, regardless of consequence – not unlike how many of you run your own businesses.
You may remember when then Human Services Commissioner Con Hogan addressed this organization, during the Dean administration laid out his goals and 33 measureable outcomes clearly defined for his agency. He recommended we fire him if these did not improve during his tenure. They did. Instead of building on this, the succeeding Governor fired the metrics as a potential political embarrassment. It is the obligation of leadership to tell the truth to its citizens. It’s the obligation of the press to ensure that it is the truth and it is our obligation to hold government accountable for openness. We don’t.
The second area I would recommend is to continue our efforts to improve cost-efficiency in government. Like many of you, I have served on at least three legislative or gubernatorial commissions designed to fix something.
As chair of the VT journalism Trust, I have often encouraged editors to do a story analyzing the principle recommendations of the last ten years’ worth of citizen commissions and study sessions to see what, if any, recommendations have been implemented. From the terrific work done by Mary Powell and Dave Coates on government efficiency up through the work of the Blue Ribbon Tax Commission, little if any of this work is ever implemented.
We confuse principles with process. Principles may be sacred; process is not and must be constantly reviewed and adjusted to accommodate change. We are loath to change and thus to improve process. One of the recommendations of the Tax commission was simply that all tax expenditures automatically sunset in three years forcing the legislature to periodically review their intent, purpose and efficacy – this so that bomb shelters and fraternities don’t remain exempt from property tax long past their assumed social good.
This is true at the local level as well. The proliferation of hyper-local fire departments, police, emergency personnel, water districts, school systems, health facilities, especially in population-dense areas like Chittenden County is unsustainable. We must begin to see these services and allocate resources more regionally and in a coordinated way. Every historical district cannot continue to deploy state-of-the-art everything. 19th century boundaries no longer mean anything.
Good management in government and business are the same. If, like me, you are one the few remaining alive today that believes that well run, open government can indeed have beneficial social and economic impacts on its citizens then the only difference between government and business is mission. It’s the job of business to make profits for its owners and shareholders and the job of government to improve the collective lives of its citizens.
The Roundtable has long had a role helping to improve government and we must pursue improved management practice and efficiency there. The nation is being torn apart by its polarized view of government sprawl.
One side believes we should take it apart and never put it back together and the other believes we should expand it even more. The practical approach lies in the middle. We must streamline it, making its purpose and initiatives manifest, accessible, measurable. As Mary Powell has often said, “I don’t, frankly care whether a government initiative costs more or less, I just want to know that it’s effective at what it set out to do.
Finally, Vermont is a tiny economic engine – a $5B budget to which we only contribute $2.5B. We have 320,000 income tax filers among which only 160,000 of us include checks. We get a lot from our relationship with Washington.
The business sector, the non-profit sector and the government all work inside their silos to solve social and economic ills. The Roundtable can continue its leadership position, convening all three sectors to work together to pick and solve a few of our problems. The government and non-profit sectors are not areas where competition has worked. It works well enough in the free market, but not in the public sectors. The two public sectors require leadership and collaboration. I have given up any belief that free market competition has worked in either healthcare or education.
Going forward, I believe the Roundtable can continue to lead and innovate, championing government transparency, clarity and declared purpose, improving government efficiency and measuring outcomes. To do this effectively, we need to be small and agile. So far we’re only small.
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