Minnesota: The Land of 10,000 Cuts

  • Blog Post by: Gary Cunningham
  • March 9, 2010 - 5:52 PM


Minnesota: The Land of 10,000 Cuts
“When sleight of hand is no longer enough, our leaders have turned to across-the-board cuts, which weakens every program equally, regardless of its impact on citizens. When these are exhausted and real choices must be made, legislatures typically cut in an ad hoc and highly political fashion, based largely on which interest groups have the most muscle and scream the loudest. This process inevitably victimizes the weakest members of society, who have the lease political clout… But, as shortsighted or thoughtless as these tactics may be, they all obscure the fundamental flaw in the conventional approach to fiscal crisis.”
The Price of Government – Getting the Results We Need in an Age of Permanent Fiscal Crisis
Peter Hutchinson and David Osborne 2004
Currently, in Minnesota, across the country and internationally the public sector is grappling with how to make public services better and more efficient. We have come to a point in our history where we can no longer afford to deliver public services in the same way we have in the past. As we watch the Minnesota Legislature struggle with the current billion dollar deficit and looming future deficits; how to pay for and maintain the public service system is at the center of this on-going debate. The Minnesota Miracle, the tax and investment policy, which worked so well for decades, now lies dead at the bottom of the lake in the land of 10,000 cuts.
From a distance, as we watch the political theater at the Capitol, it is apparent that many of the current proposals to address the fiscal shortfall are designed to save money and assumes that the services and the systems remain essentially unchanged. On the one hand, you have the “just say no” crowd, who’s vision is a “race to the bottom”. While on the other hand, you have the “race to mediocrity” crowd that fights to maintain the legacy systems and institutional arrangements that will not position Minnesota to compete in the 21st century.
I realize that this is an oversimplification of legitimate political differences in debates occurring at the State Capitol. I only frame it this way to make a point. The political stalemate, balkanization and lack of compromise are having a devastating impact on what could be a great opportunity to revision and reposition Minnesota to address the underlying conditions that create our continued financial dilemma. It could also be an opportunity to look at long-term solutions rather than short-term fixes to the State’s budget crisis. The bottom line of our current financial dilemma is about governance.
In an article entitled The Challenges of Co-Production – How Equal Partnerships between Professionals and the Public Are Critical to Improving Public Services, David Boyle and Mike Harris frame the current Minnesota legislative approach quite well: "doing the same thing, only trying to do it more cheaply – rather than focusing on far reaching reform that prevent needs from arising and provides better outcomes."
The current approach to public service reform focuses on easy fixes and gimmicks which siphon attention and money away from prevention and early intervention strategies which are often more difficult to model and implement.
At the same time, as we struggle with the cost side of the equation, with regards to public services, the demand side is ever-increasing. Minnesotans face some of the deepest economic, education, health and social disparities of any state in the nation. These underlying conditions will continue to grow despite years of effort by well-intentioned and hard-working public servants. These disparities, if not addressed, will continue to overwhelm the social and economic infrastructure of the state. Report after report confirms this finding.
Minnesota needs a new vision and a radically innovative approach to public service redesign if it is to move beyond the current mindset of partisan gridlock. We have to reconceptualize how we think about service delivery.
There is no doubt that there is a real urgency among policy makers to find new approaches – cost efficient evidence-based practices – that work. According to Boyle and Harris, the reason that many of the approaches taken to date have not worked to address the economic and social disparities is that we miss addressing the underlying "operating system" which depends primarily on the social economy of the family and neighborhoods. The fact that “we can no longer rely on continuing economic growth to provide enough finances for public services is because the financial system is unreliable, markets cannot tackle inequalities, and because unchecked growth puts the planet at risk.”
Explicit in the solution to our current dilemma is a return to our basic values of democracy, where every citizen shares in the responsibility for sustaining the public good. This means seeing citizens as democratic co-creators in the solutions. According to Harry Boyte of The Center for Democracy and Citizenship, "This is simple in rhetoric but difficult in practice. The idea that democracy is a cornucopia of benefit packages – coupled with the view of politics as distributed activity, ‘who gets what, when and how’ – is entrenched in the famous formulation of Harold Laswell (1936). Politics as it is conventionally understood neglects where public wealth comes from.” What many of us fail to recognize is that our democracy is largely the work of citizens.
Instead of looking at people that use public services as a drain on the system, we could start looking at citizens as resources. The current users, clients and/or patients are critical components to the success or failure of public service professionals. Each user of the system is the building block of our missing neighborhood-level support systems – family and community – which underpin economic activity, as well as social development.
Our current public service system rations services depending on who is most needy and ignore the assets of individuals we are purportedly attempting to help. We know for example that social networks play a larger role in a person's ability to become self-sufficient, yet our public service systems do very little to build social and human capital.
In many cases, individuals have to continue to be needy or be at the threshold of subsistence in order to receive public support. These “benefit cliffs”, as termed by economists, increase the need for public services. The current system creates disincentives for people to take personal responsibility for fear that they will not receive the needed public support for themselves or their families.
A soon to be released report by Citizens League entitled, Creating Pathways to Prosperity, states, “It is clear our policies as written do not ‘believe in the power and potential of all citizens…’ A great deal of human capacity is used by those in poverty to become competent consumers of the welfare system, a system that requires learning multiple rules and regulations, managing disparate eligibility requirements and timeliness, collecting and submitting various documents proving one is truly needy, filling out multiple forms and applications, and spending time, energy and resources visiting numerous offices and meetings with different administrators and practitioners, telling one’s painful story over and over again.” This report compiled by respected leaders in the public, nonprofit and private sectors, demonstrate the need for reform of the public service system.
Boyle and Harris argue that "if public services are to become genuinely better and efficient, they must focus on maximizing positive outcomes defined in terms of public benefit, rather than merely minimizing costs and move upstream to tackle problems before they become critical."
At the heart of the current crisis, is the methods used in the public sector to provide services. By focusing on inputs and outputs and not changing the underlying conditions, we continue to resolve the same problems over and over. We need to move from a system that rewards public servants for their dedication to the system, rather than their commitment to building effective relationships with the public.
Anthony Wagner, Executive Director of Pillsbury United Communities, sums these issues up clearly in an article entitled, Hope for the New American Neighborhood: Creating a Fourth Sector, when he states, the dominance of the program/problem paradigm “with its endorsement of specialization and programmatic responses as units of analysis and funding… has slowly allowed the fundamental and most significant part of any human service effort – the relationship between worker and client – to fade into the background… we need more self-help projects, a mindset of investment with increased network systems, the identification and exchange of skills and clear expectation for reciprocity.” This is the idea of co-production between public service professionals and citizens.
The idea of co-production, as a means of public service delivery is not new. The term was originally coined by the 2009 Nobel Laureate for economics, Elinor Ostrom. Ostrom’s team defines co-production as "the process through which inputs used to produce a good or services are contributed by individuals who are not in the same organization." It is built on the premise of rebuilding and reinforcing the core operating system of families and neighborhoods. Co-production of public services suggests that we can rebuild this core economy and realize its full potential. The idea of shifting the balance of power and responsibility from professionals to individuals by involving them in their own services delivery "recognizes that people are not merely repositories of need or recipients of service".
Edgar Cahn developed the practical framework of how coproduction can be used to transform public services. The five key principles of coproduction systems are:
  •  Recognizing people as assets, because people themselves are the real wealth of society.
  • Valuing peoples work differently, to recognize everything as work that people do: to raise families, look after people, maintain healthy communities, create social justice and foster good governance.
  • Promoting reciprocity, giving and receiving, because it builds trust between people and fosters mutual respect.
  • Building social networks, because physical and mental well-being of people depends on strong, enduring relationships.
The soon to be released Citizens League report takes the idea of co-production principles a step further by suggesting that public services, policies and programs be evaluated against the following questions:
  • Do they cover and build on individual – family – community strengths?
  • Do they make transparent processes, structures, policies impacting the individual – family – community?
  • Do they help illuminate for the individual – family – community the influence of social – economic and cultural context?
If we begin to structure our public service infrastructure around the principles outlined above and we evaluated them based on the questions articulated by the Citizens League, we can reframe the public service paradigm for the 21st century and increase the value of public services to citizens as a whole. It would provide us with the opportunity to move beyond short-term fixes and partisan stalemates to begin to address some of the underlying causes which exacerbate our continuing financial dilemma.

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