A Problem of Basic Operations in Local Government

Earlier this week, I noted Dan McGowan’s Boston Globe fact check of some claims that have been made about Providence schools.  Some of them are especially useful in that they help to point the way to an underlying problem.  This one stands out in particular (italics added):

It is “next to impossible to remove bad teachers from schools.”

Grade: B

The researchers said “administrators and some teachers” made this claim, and Elorza has cited the difficulty of removing “terrible teachers” as one the reasons he supports the state’s plan to take over the district. One example that backs up this claim is that educators receive tenure after three years on the job. But Calabro, the union president, has pushed back. “The union doesn’t hire teachers and we don’t fire teachers,” she often reminds reporters. It’s her way of pointing out that if administrators properly document the reasons why a teacher should be fired, the termination process is not as tedious. “But every time this goes to a hearing, the arbitrator asks, ‘What does their evaluation say?’ ” Calabro said. “If the answer is ‘highly effective,’ then yes, it’s hard to fire them.”

From my experience in local government, I can attest that this really is a problem.  Important incidents and information are rarely placed in employees’ files.  Their performance reviews tend to present them as excellent employees… right up to the point that their poor performance (or, sometimes, illegal activity) can no longer be denied.  In a sense, there are two sets of books:  what everybody knows to be true, and what is actually documented.

The reasons this might especially be a problem in government operations are various and not simple.  Most fundamental are the incentives.  In a non-union, private-sector environment, organizational efficiency is more a matter of survival and everybody can be easily replaced for poor performance, which makes the incentives stronger to identify problems and to document them so as not to be blamed for them.

The incentives of government operations are very different.  The environment’s political nature always makes it an attractive option not to make waves.  Blame is also easier to shift off of anybody in particular and onto processes or abstractions, just like the complaint that “terrible teachers” are impossible to get rid of.  Nobody seems to own the responsibility for allowing that to be the case — or at least nobody in office at the time the problem rears its head.

Of course, politically active labor unions play a massive role in making the system function like this.  They help elect people who will tilt the balance in favor of their members.  They work to foster a narrative that presents all government officials and employees as engaged in “public service,” rather than remunerative employment.  They create the sense that grievances and reprisals are always an option if management wields too strong of a hand.

All of this exists in the plain reality that people who are elected by the general public will keep their positions for reasons that might have nothing to do with how well the government provides its services.  That is especially true now that we use government to settle cultural disputes and choose winners in social battles.

There may be no solution that does not address this civic excess.  We should limit government’s activities as much as possible to those for which evaluation is straightforward and that come with their own healthy incentives.  In the case of the military, for example, the cost of poor operation can be death.  In the case of infrastructure, crumbling roads are easy to see.

In the meantime, elected officials have to implement policies requiring documentation and make sure that they are followed.  That’s not a very flashy accomplishment to bring to voters, and it can unsettle people who are used to the way things have been done.  The payoff is a long-term sense that things run well under that official, but to get there, he or she must survive relentless challenges.

In other words, time spent on the basics of operations gives an official little to show in the short term and makes him or her a target for constant political attack… which I can also attest from experience.


Of the following two issues related to Rhode Island’s public schools, which one is a greater concern?

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