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RIGHT THINKING: Governor should emphasize outputs, not inputs

January 23, 2019 - 00:00
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    Andrew C. Spiropoulos

Gov. Kevin Stitt’s inaugural address nicely illustrates how his campaign and election have sparked optimism, even from those who opposed him.

The foundation of his speech, and, we expect, his administration is his argument that state government is ineffective because it is saddled with a poorly designed executive branch structure that so fragments authority that no one, even the governor, has enough power to effectively manage state agencies and effectuate change.

From a constitution that wrests authority over the principal functions of government from the chief executive and vests it in separately elected officials who possess no obligation or little incentive to cooperate for the common good to legislatively created agencies run by managers who answer to obscure appointed boards instead of the elected governor, we have a government in which no one is in charge and no one is held accountable. Stitt believes our first task must be to reform this structure to give him the authority to manage the government the people have entrusted to him. In principle, there is nothing partisan about this call for a coherent organizational structure.

The second pillar of Stitt’s approach to government also follows from the governor’s experience as a successful manager. He passionately believes in what the business folks call benchmarking. His persistent call for Oklahoma to be a top-10 state demonstrates that, in policymaking, he intends to rely on empirical comparisons between Oklahoma and other states. Again, people of both parties should welcome a government that establishes metrics of success and measures agency progress in achieving these goals.

I would caution the governor, though, that competition in government is fundamentally different than competition in business. While companies certainly want to beat the other guy, in nearly every industry, multiple businesses can succeed – there are enough customers so many of us can make money. Politics, on the other hand, is largely a zero-sum game. If Stitt and the legislative majority succeed in hitting their targets, the other party will lose. Everyone wants Oklahoma to be better off, but everyone also thinks that will happen only when voters come to their senses and throw out their rivals.

We all want Oklahoma to be a top-10 state, but we disagree on what it means for our state to succeed. The governor will find that his opponents love to benchmark inputs, meaning how much we spend, for example, on education or health care. Inputs are easy to measure and to improve – you just have to spend more. (We shouldn’t forget that fans of input measures often directly benefit from spending hikes.) They are not fond of judging government by output measures like student academic achievement or the reduction of the number of people requiring public assistance.

Gov. Stitt’s effort to make Oklahoma government work will succeed only if he emphasizes outputs, not inputs. We should care far more about the number of students who can demonstrate academic proficiency or the number of mentally ill who are successfully treated than how much we spend on these services. Once we learn which agencies effectively produce the necessary results, they should get more funding but proof of output must precede increases in inputs. No doubt a successful businessman like Gov. Stitt understands the priority of outputs. What remains to be seen is how quickly he understands how foreign the partisans of more government find the culture of achievement.

Andrew Spiropoulos is the Robert S. Kerr, Sr. Professor of Constitutional Law at Oklahoma City University and the Milton Friedman Distinguished Fellow at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.