Reconciling Efficiency With Humanity

A very interesting New York Times article on the way Mayor Bloomberg approaches the business of government.

Some of the ideas are applicable to our little town, other parts are an “only in NYC” deal.

The idea of running a city like a business has been the cornerstone of many a new officeholder, even our Mayor Driscoll. I guess, its just a little different when the business you come from is a bar rather than the world’s largest financial information firm.

Bloomberg, like Driscoll, put a lot of faith in statistical analysis as a way of running an efficient government. NYC in fact developed the concept of computerized databases coupled with strict accountability for meeting determined goals–under Guiliani’s first police chief. Comstat has been the model for all that has followed, even our Syrastat.

This is, of course, the modern-day equivalent of the war between the good-government progressives and the ethnic Tammany Hall-type patronage machine. Bloomberg has the added ability to set the modern campaign structure on its ear. He doesn’t have to curry favor with ANYONE in order to get contributions to keep the machine running. He finances all his campaigns out of his own pocket.

While the article mentions that this has led to a remarkably graft-free administration, it also creates a bit of a closed-loop atmosphere. Bloomberg doesn’t need anyone’s money, sometimes that also means he doesn’t get a wide range of opinions either.

To me, that is the inherent tension in local government. The bloodless efficiency of statistically planned government is definitely appealing to the yuppie policy wonk in me. I’m right and here’s why I’m right. Here’s my ten-point action plan, complete with implementation guidelines and complete statistical documentation.

Too much of that and you become divorced from the people you are actually governing, most of whom have much less of a connection to the world of statistics and policy. The warp and woof of real life includes crazy characters, leaps of faith and intuition–things that do not appear on a spreadsheet.

The ethnic machines of the past may have been guilty of graft, but they also accomplished great things–building large cities and dragging millions of citizens into the mainstream of our culture. Politics was a participatory sport. You need a job, you pass petitions in your neighborhood during the election. The machines inspired great loyalty and pride–James Michael Curley in Boston won election from a jail cell. His motto was also “uplift the race” and became symbolic of Irish pride in a city that treated most of his compatriots as little more than serfs.

My desire has always been to combine the best of both worlds, to reconcile the efficiency with the humanity. You need both to govern effectively.

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