Sometimes advocates for consolidation of government services seem like they’re building a model for classroom analysis rather than assessing the world in which we actually live. For example, consolidating services in a corrupt, insider-driven state like Rhode Island only moves authority farther away from a level that voters and grassroots groups can affect. Look at the Central Coventry Fire District, which began as a regional consolidation project to save money and wound up with intolerable tax increases; then, when the people still managed to rally, the state jumped in to ensure the victory of the special interests.
Another consideration that counts against consolidation is that disaggregated decision making mitigates risk. When the folks at the top make the decisions, we get things like 38 Studios, Deep Water Wind (with its economy-slowing energy cost increases), and a possible second minor-league baseball park. If big decisions have to be affirmed by large numbers of people, then the plans really have to be vetted on many levels, and a larger group will have personal investment in success.
URI business professor Edward Mazze’s op-ed in yesterday’s Providence Journal belongs in this category of consolidation rhetoric:
There are eight tourism districts in Rhode Island that promote and support local activities. The tourism districts should be eliminated and their activities carried out by a state office of tourism. Money would be saved. The state would be in a better position to develop a campaign that would promote Rhode Island’s brand. This would result in a greater return on the state’s tourism expenditures and place the state in a competitive position to attract tourists and conventions.
Eliminating the local tourism districts would remove duplicative, overlapping and fragmented programs. The local districts do not have the financial resources to support state-of-the-art research or the information technology needed to compete against states that are better funded to attract tourist dollars. The local districts compete against each other and build localized power bases that could work against a unified approach to tourism. …
Central responsibility would strengthen the state’s tourism activities. The activities would be more efficient. There would be better coordination of services, more effective use of resources and less jurisdictional confusion. There would also be more opportunities for activities with other state agencies for economic development and job creation.
Put aside the assumption that it is a legitimate role of the Rhode Island government to act as a corporate executive office managing the state as if it were a business. Who’s to say that politicians and bureaucrats playing with other people’s money and with no real personal consequences for failure are our best bet for developing and implementing a campaign? And whose interest would that plan be likely to serve, first and foremost?
Worse: What if they draw the wrong conclusions or misunderstand the drivers of local communities? Money will be wasted, and the locals whose plans the state dismisses or does not understand will be pushed (or drop) out.
As for efficiency, that’s a big “maybe.” Sure, the consolidation would eliminate local jobs, but it would create state-level jobs, and justify raises for higher state positions. The assumption of better coordination is also not a sure thing. State agencies don’t operate in perfect harmony, and the incentives to coordinate are arguably not as high as in the private sector, where profit and even survival depends on it.
Finally, who’s to say that Rhode Islanders should want a unified image. Let Newport be Newport; let Providence be Providence; let South County be South County. That’s the real charm of Rhode Island. Contrary to the frequent assertion of consolidation-and-centralization types, the advantage of being small is the proximity of so much diversity, not the ability to give central authorities the ability to experiment with all of our lives and livelihoods. If state offices can’t market that, then they don’t get Rhode Island and shouldn’t presume to lead it.