In praise of big government: The Ford Foundation's Innovations in Government Awards
By Daniel T. Oliver
At a luncheon ceremony last month in Washington, D.C., the Ford Foundation announced the names of 10 government programs that will receive $100,000 each as part of the foundation's annual Innovations in American Government Awards program. But do these programs represent true innovation, or are they little more than creative examples of big government?
Since 1986, the $11.4-billion New York City-based Ford Foundation, the third largest private grantmaking foundation in America, has awarded $15.9 million to 255 government programs that, in foundation president Susan V. Berresford's words, "provide continuing examples of government as a creative force, applying effective solutions to real problems."
Approximately 1,500 local, state and federal programs apply each year for the Ford Foundation's Innovations in American Government Awards. According to the foundation, these applicants are engaged in every type of government service: "administration and management; arts and cultural policy; communication information policy; criminal justice and courts; education; environment; health; housing; job training and placement; open space and recreation; public finance; public safety; public works and infrastructure; social services; substance abuse treatment and prevention."
The grant program is administered by Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government in partnership with the Washington, D.C.-based Council for Excellence in Government, a Ford Foundation grant recipient that "works to improve the performance of American government and government's place in the lives and esteem of American citizens." In addition to the Ford Foundation, several corporations and grantmakers fund the Council's activities.
Each year 25 local, state and federal program finalists receive awards of $20,000, and ten winners receive additional awards of $80,000 to help replicate their work in other government agencies. Since 1986, awards have been given to 135 Innovations winners and 120 finalists. (Finalists did not begin receiving awards until 1992. Also, there were no awards in 1989.)
A committee of public policy experts and former government officials, including former mayors and Members of Congress, select the winners. David Gergen, editor-at-large of U.S. News & World Report, chairs the committee.
On the surface, the Innovations in American Government program appears to be nothing more than an effort to promote "good government" a worthy objective that most anyone would support. In fact, however, it is more an effort to shape public opinion about big government.
The Council for Excellence in Government worries that Americans' trust in government has declined dramatically in recent decades. In an article entitled "Why Americans Should Trust Government Now," Council president Patricia McGinnis, former deputy associate director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Jimmy Carter, notes that in 1994 only 21 percent of Americans trusted the federal government "to do the right thing most of the time." Public trust was at 75 percent in the 1960s.
Why should this be cause for concern? The Council believes that declining trust in government may result in declining willingness to pay for big government. In a 1997 book entitled Why People Don't Trust Government, the Council says that "without confidence in government, the public is less willing to provide... critical resources' of support," i.e., tax revenues.
Similarly, Susan Berresford worries that "constant criticism of gov-ernment's failures... results in a spiral of pessimism and cynicism that may ultimately impede citizens' political participation as well as taxpayers' willingness to support [government]." In fact, "It was partly in response to this negativism that the [Ford] Foundation established the Innovations in American Government Awards program in 1986."
Any government program may apply for an Innovations Award. Indeed, many awards have gone to programs that are arguably unnecessary. This suggests a tacit approval of virtually everything the government does today. As the list on page 6 shows, the Ford Foundation is one of the largest foundation supporters of liberal public-policy organizations organizations that seek to maintain and expand an array of government programs. In 1998 it awarded $17.4 million to 23 liberal organizations listed in the Capital Research Cent-er's Guide to Nonprofit Advocacy and Policy Groups. But it gave only one grant of $197,000 to a moderately conservative group.
Federal, state and local governments provide hundreds of services that in many cases could be or already are provided at lower cost by businesses and nonprofit organizations. These include day-care, skating rinks, swimming pools, camping grounds, pest control, marinas, arts programs, television and radio stations and books on everything from accounting to the weather.
As a list of winners, many of the $100,000 award winners are government programs that could be privatized. Certainly "protective services" such as law enforcement and court administration are necessary government functions, but only 13 percent of the awards have gone to such programs. The largest number, 38 or 31 percent have gone to "human services" programs such as job training, health care and pre-schools. These are services that businesses and nonprofits also provide. Whether such "community services" as "rural development" and "recreation" should be provided by government is debatable.
Recipients in the "management and governance" category include questionable government arts programs. For example, Block 37, a 1997 winner, is an arts center in Chicago funded by federal, state and local funds. Arts Incubator, a county-funded program in Arlington, Virginia, received an award in 1996.
Other awards have gone to programs in departments and agencies that impose heavy and arguably unnecessary regulatory costs on society. For example:
Moreover, the reduced approval time appears to be a charade. According to Cato, the FDA "has transferred many aspects of review from one part of the approval process to another and counts as approval time' only the reduced part of the process." Experts conservatively estimate that FDA drug-approval delays have cost 200,000 lives over the last 30 years. Critics contend that private advisory organizations comprised of medical specialists and biomedical researchers could test the safety and effectiveness of new drugs faster and at lower cost than the FDA.
Whether FEMA is needed is questionable. Long before FEMA, cities, states and entire regions of the country recovered from hundreds of natural and man-made disasters by relying on private insurance and charity. FEMA and other federal agencies increasingly supplant these private-sector approaches and now cover one-third the cost of recovery from a typical disaster.
Innovative or Mundane?
Several finalists won awards this year for their use of the Internet and computer technology. For example:
While the Ford Foundation may consider these uses of the Internet and computer technology "innovative," they are not particularly remarkable. Just as businesses and individuals are using the Internet and computers to increase efficiency and cut costs, government should be expected to do so as a matter of course to enhance law enforcement, sell bonds, make information more readily available to the public and the like.
As another example of such "innovation," the city of Farmers Branch, Texas received an award for returning surplus tax revenues to property owners. Although this is a rare action worthy of praise and emulation, taxpayers should expect such treatment. The Ford Foundation calls it a "creative and innovative solution."
Other Questionable Programs
Awards have gone to other questionable programs. For example:
Yet the plan may turn out to be nothing more than a million-dollar boondoggle. Salmon stocks have not begun to recover. Moreover, in 1998 three independent panels of scientists commissioned by the National Marine Fisheries Service concluded that the plan was severely inadequate.
Few Good Awards
To its credit, the Ford Foundation has bestowed a small number of good awards that have reduced governments' operating costs. These include:
Out of Step
Improving the quality of American government is certainly an admirable goal. But at a time when governments around the world are privatizing and downsizing, a program that bestows awards on every type of federal, state and local government program without questioning the need for those programs seems out of touch with real innovations in government. In this sense, the Innovations in American Government Awards do not promote "good government" so much as they promote "good big government."
Ford Foundation president Susan Berresford believes that "a decade of Innovations award winners and finalists provides ample evidence that government often works well and creatively." Yet, ironically, she acknowledges that "government is constantly on the defensive because many peo-ple do experience ineffective government programs." The Council for Excellence in Government worries that "today, skepticism of government outweighs confidence. It has begun to turn into cynicism. This is dangerous for any democratic system."
It could be argued, however, that such skepticism is both well-deserved and healthy. It may pose a threat only to a government that has grown too large and must be scaled back.
Federal, state and local governments now appropriate more than half the new wealth created in the private sector each year and spend a combined $2.6 trillion annually. Federal regulations cost the private sector another $500 billion annually. Yet even if today's massive government operated at peak efficiency, most Americans would probably still oppose it simply because of its sheer size and power.
A 1995 Gallup poll found that 52 percent of Americans believe "the federal government has become so large and powerful that it poses a threat to the rights and freedom of ordinary citizens." Another 1995 poll found that nearly 70 percent of Americans prefer "a smaller government with fewer services" than a "larger government with many services." That was up from 49 percent in 1984 and 60 percent in 1993.
Despite the hopes of the Ford Foundation, it is unlikely that the Innovations Awards will do anything significant to remedy Americans' mistrust of big government. Perhaps that's a good thing.
Reprinted with the kind permission of the Capitol Research Centre.
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