Government By Levers, Loopholes, and Indirect Channels


Dan Yorke had me on his 630AM/99.7FM WPRO radio show, this afternoon, because we agree that there’s something just… weird about Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s “hiring” of the state’s chief innovation officer (CIO).  (Click for audio of the segment.)  Incidentally, I noticed, today, that despite the RI Senate spokesman’s firm position that CIO Richard Culatta was hired “outside of state government,” Mr. Culatta himself is apparently claiming to work for the state, at least on LinkedIn (screenshot).

I was a little surprised, though, to find Dan so comfortable with the government’s blending public agencies, quasi-publics, non-profits, and private partners so that the governor can pick an economic direction and then work to bring every sector of the local society in line with that plan.

Under normal circumstances, it doesn’t sound so bad.  As Dan said, top elected officials have some latitude to articulate a plan and then “live or die by the results.”  But I guess it has to be my project to persuade Dan and everybody else that we’re looking at something new and beyond what they mean by that, before it’s too late to stop the progress.

The problem is — as the Culatta hiring shows very crisply — that government is creating all these levers, loopholes, and indirect channels. The list is getting long, from the hiring of Donald Lally, to the refinancing that gave the quasi-public Commerce Corp. an $80 million slush fund for economic development, to the RhodeWorks borrowing under a revenue bond that doesn’t go through the usual voting process, to tax rebates and deals, to targeted regulation. In all these ways, government pulls resources out of the private sector at the same time that it’s ratching up the difficulty of getting by, just individuals and businesses can’t make it without government help.

This isn’t just the governor picking a platform and spending time trying to convince businesses and the people of Rhode Island it’s a good idea, maybe greasing some skids in government or proposing legislation to facilitate the plan.  Rather, it’s likely to be a plan put together by the Brookings Institution and the federal government that brings together insiders in and out of government who have vague relationships in which it isn’t exactly clear who has authority and with hands washing hands.  Again, the CIO is a good example, inasmuch as his real relationship with the state is almost entirely a matter of verbal agreement.

So, rather than the governor having a plan, a business coming forward interested in the idea, and some public process to secure a new law, regulation, or grant of some kind, we’ll have the governor’s private-sector innovation officer bringing back some fancy Brookings idea from Washington, calling the Rhode Island Foundation (and some Raimondo supporters) to direct some funds to some company or other organization, and another example of the mountains of legislation slip through without anybody’s knowing what it’s actually meant to do.  (Hello, 38 Studios.)  All the while, these groups in and out of government, will be working (RhodeMap RI style) to impose new sources of pressure at the local and state levels, as well as to promote people to state and local offices who are on board with the plan.

I think this is going to be a subtext of the Brookings report, as it was with RhodeMap. Part of what the pointy heads in Washington are helping Rhode Island government figure out how to do is to get around the restrictions of their office.

It’s as if the push for transparency over the last couple of decades has forced the central planners to evolve their plan to the next level, in which it isn’t clear where government ends and groups not subject to the reach or vision of voters begin.  I hope I’m wrong, but if I’m not, once we’re in this loop of intertwined resources and power — government to private-sector to activists to government — it will be immensely difficult to break out of it, either by building competing organizations and businesses or by electing new officials.

In summary, there’s a reason our system requires things like Senate confirmation of executive-branch hires.  There’s a reason, as Dan might say, that the governor can’t just transfer her hired cabinet members out of state government.

  • Rhett Hardwick

    I am certainly not pleased with the situation, but find it understandable. Politicians are hired to “produce results” and feel constrained by rules which are probably quite reasonable. So, “playing to win” they probably see little harm in an end run. I know that if I found a governmental rule which I could “get around” I would. The difference, of course, is that they write the rules and I don’t.I have to play the cards I am dealt, they can demand a new deck.
    I have little faith that an “innovation officer” can do much, I think it is about “creating an impression”.

  • Winter Solstice

    Very troubling. By the time Rhode Island realizes what has transpired, it will be too late. Obviously, these Machiavellian maneuvers enshrouded in secrecy are unacceptable. What can we do about it?