Friday, August 1, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Three types of common government blunders, and the Philadelphia version of each

People spend a lot of time arguing about whether the private or public sector is the appropriate venue for various responsibilities. And rightly so! It's often an important question. But there's more to talk about.

Three types of common government blunders, and the Philadelphia version of each

People spend a lot of time arguing about whether the private or public sector is the appropriate venue for various responsibilities. And rightly so! It's often an important question. But there's more to talk about.

A couple of researchers from Harvard and Deloitte took an interest in why public sector projects sometimes fail. William Eggers and John O'Leary studied 75 major initiatives since World War II, and found that "a predictable set of traps ensnare well-meaning initiatives time and time again." In a column for Governing, they identify three:

  • "Design-free design": This refers to initiatives that are designed to pass as legislation, but not to work in the real world. The authors cite California's restructuring of its electricity system, and the subsequent blackouts, as an example.
  • "The Overconfidence Trap": This comes into play when planners don't take the possibility of failure seriously -- they give unrealistic budgets or timelines, or have no Plan B. Think Iraqi reconstruction.
  • "The Complacency Trap": This is when a department or agency does something poorly simply because it always has.The authors point to the modern school calendar, which was designed for an agrarian society.

We thought it might be interesting to see if we could brainstorm some contemporary local examples of each of these errors.

Complacency is easy -- post below this one links to Dave Davies' column on Harrisburg's partisan budgeting, a bad system that's in place just because the capitol has always done things this way.

You could probably argue that aspects of this year's city budget have come, in retrospect, to feature design-free design. Council has already tried to walk back several cuts simply because it didn't think through the consequences and realize, for example, that eliminating on-street leaf collection would become an issue in the fall. It just wanted to pass that budget.

As for the overconfidence trap, we haven't felt the consequences of gaming yet, but there's reason to worry: The city and state are hoping for big gaming revenues even as casino revenues across the country are dropping.

There have got to be more. Help us with our brainstorm! What other disappointing city or state initiatives fall into these categories? Or do the categories seem incomplete to you? Let us know in comments.

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Every year, city government spends slightly more than $4 billion. Where does all that money come from? More importantly, where does it go? Are we getting the most bang for our tax buck? “It's Our Money” is a joint project between Philadelphia Daily News and WHYY, funded by the William Penn Foundation, designed to answer these questions.

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