Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Appointed vs. elected

In Pennsylvania, we debate about it with respect to judges; in Philadelphia, with respect to the functions performed by various row offices: The merits of appointed and elected officials. Do voters directly choose an appropriate number of public office-holders? Maybe electing officials creates a healthier democracy, and we should do it more. Or maybe voters only have energy to pay attention to so many positions, and we should choose fewer.

Appointed vs. elected

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In Pennsylvania, we debate about it with respect to judges; in Philadelphia, with respect to the functions performed by various row offices: The merits of appointed and elected officials. Do voters directly choose an appropriate number of public office-holders? Maybe electing officials creates a healthier democracy, and we should do it more. Or maybe voters only have energy to pay attention to so many positions, and we should choose fewer.

Governing reports on a study that attempts to test the relative merits of each approach. Economist Alexander Whalley compares the success of treasurers in different California cities, some of whom are elected and some appointed, at keeping their cities' borrowing costs low (he controlled for some other differences between the cities). The verdict:

Using this approach, Whalley, whose work was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in January, found that borrowing costs were 13 to 23 percent lower for cities with appointed treasurers. In particular, appointed treasurers were more successful at refinancing their debt to secure lower interest rates. "Debt management policy is pretty technical. Not a lot of people understand it," Whalley says. "For very complicated policy tasks, appointed officials do better."

Of course, this doesn't mean that appointing officials is always better (who would appoint them?). But it does suggest that a) whether officials are elected or appointed can make a difference in outcomes, and b) there is sometimes a case for appointing officials who have traditionally been elected. In some contexts, appointed officials do a better job.

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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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