In my last three posts I have made a few comments about context and governance reform.
- I have noted that contexts in which reforms are planned are always full of preexisting institutions (rules of the game): There is no such thing as a blank slate on which to write a new reform script.
- I have also argued that the institutions one is likely to find look like icebergs, comprising visible elements like laws and invisible elements like norms and cultural-cognitive devices. Institutions are not laws or norms or cultural cognitive mechanisms; they are amalgams of all three.
I noted that many outsiders either treat institutions as one of the three or they don't look hard enough at the norms and cultural-cognitive mechanisms they cannot see. These are like the parts of an iceberg that lie below the water line. They are not easy to see, but can cause even the best reform to fail (like the Titanic).
Some say this iceberg sunk the Titanic (see http://www.irishcentral.com/news/Chilling-photograph-of-iceberg-that-sank-the-Titanic-emerges-147487545.html)
I will get even more complex today, with the idea that all contexts actually have multiple institutions at play.
The idea of an 'interinstitutional' context is not new, but it is important. All contexts are like seas of icebergs, with different sizes and shapes. Some dominate others, some are easy to pass by.
When one thinks about institutional reform I always suggest identifying the icebergs in place, and navigating between them. Think about an application, building on the brief discussion about US budgetary politics I began yesterday.
- There are more rules of the game than 'the Constitution' (which many think is the start and end of all budgetary institutions).
- There are formal Constitutional rules that give Congress responsibility, but keep it vague as to who in Congress is actually responsible, for bringing out the budget.
- There are less formal electoral rules that make the President responsible, though without formal authority to speak of.
- There are rules of the game that force political representatives to speak of limited government, because voters like to hear about this.
- There are rules of the game that require political representatives to get as much federal spending to their districts as possible, with 'pork' drawing support.
- There are rules that make defense spending a sacred cow for some, and health and social security spending a sacred cow for others.
One question I have is whether commentators are honest about thinking about all of these rules of the game when criticizing one or other aspect of the system (understanding that half-truthful criticism and blame-game politics seem also to be a dominant 'rule' of the US system). Another question is whether reformers see these multiple rules when thinking about how they will address the problems before them.
Past reforms (including budget controls in the late 1980s) had minimal impacts and just 'went away' because they did not fit into the sea of institutional icebergs in place. In fact, while the US public financial management system underwent its most aggressive period of reform in past decades it also saw its weakest results (at least in terms of fiscal discipline).
I write about this in my recent article (http://faculty.cbpp.uaa.alaska.edu/afgjp/PADM601%20Fall%202011/(Il)logics%20of%20Federal%20Budgeting.pdf):
"One could list many others [reforms], from planning-programming-budgeting systems to zero-based budgeting, performance-based budgeting, and the Program Assessment Rating Tool, the formalization of internal audit in agencies, process computerization, the adoption of long-term planning, and more. In many respects, the last century was a period of great budgetary reform in the federal government.
Interestingly, however, the sustainability problem has worsened in this period. Deficits have been more prevalent since these interventions than before. Federal spending has exceeded revenues in 75 percent of the years following the 1921 act, compared with 38 percent of the years between 1792 and 1920. Spending exceeded revenues in 16 of the 20 years after the 1990 Budget Enforcement Act introduced measures to control defi cits. Deficits have exceeded 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 8 of the 20 years since the Budget Enforcement Act, reaching such levels only 26 times in the prior 198 years (13 of which were related to wars)."
I know it is oversimplified, but this experience suggests that past reform activity has failed, repeatedly. I fear a poorly considered reform agenda will suffer similar failure.
- What institutional icebergs need to be navigated to make reforms work better in this context?
- Which institutional icebergs need to be navigated to make reforms work better in your context?
- How can one navigate the sea of icebergs better than is typically done?
Picture from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17257653