THE NEW CENTRALIZERS:
By MICHAEL C. DORF
|Wednesday, Jun. 12, 2002|
Last week brought news of two enormous and parallel moves to centralize power. At the national level, President Bush proposed to combine 22 separate federal agencies in a new cabinet-level department charged with preventing attacks on America. Meanwhile, in my hometown of New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg reached a tentative agreement with state officials wresting control of the city schools from a Board of Education that was designed to give voice to local leaders.
The source of the power shifts is more than a little bit ironic. For years, conservative leaders have lamented the very trend towards centralization that Republicans Bush and Bloomberg now propose to accelerate. "Central planning" would squelch individual freedom and squander public resources, they claimed.
What led to the sudden about-face?
Why Two Republicans Abandoned Decentralization
With respect to the proposed Homeland Security Department, the answer is terrorism. We have recently learned that many of the pre-September 11th intelligence failures were not so much the result of an inability to collect data, but of an inability to share it.
Within the FBI, facts known to field agents did not reach Washington headquarters, while pieces of the overall jigsaw puzzle remained isolated in the CIA, Customs, the INS, and other special-purpose organizations jealous of their own turf. By combining much of this authority in a single cabinet official, President Bush hopes to remove the organizational barriers to effective coordination.
Here in New York, in contrast, no single, sudden cataclysm convinced conservatives that decentralized schools don't work. Rather, they reached that conclusion over time - having witnessed the local corruption, political infighting, and diffusion of responsibility that robbed many of the one million students in the city's public schools of a decent education. By taking over the reins, Mayor Bloomberg promises that the buck will stop at City Hall: Centralization, he believes, equals accountability.
In their rush to concentrate authority, however, President Bush and Mayor Bloomberg should be mindful of the legitimate reasons that conservatives and liberals alike have long been wary of big government. Centralized bureaucracies give rise to their own pathologies, most notably inefficiency and complacency.
The Perils of Centralization
Indeed, one can easily read FBI agent Coleen Rowley's recent Senate testimony as a brief against hierarchical, overly centralized organization. Had agent Rowley not needed approval from cautious Washington bureaucrats, she would have acted to examine Zacarias Moussaoui's laptop computer in advance of September 11.
Furthermore, given the valuable information the laptop contained, Rowley's actions, in turn, might have meant the FBI could even have stymied the attacks. Accordingly, one might think that field agents like Rowley need more autonomy, not less.
At the local level, Mayor Bloomberg must be on guard against the dangers that led to the adoption of the school system he now plans to dismantle. Before 1969, mayors maintained central control of the New York City schools - often to the frustration of parents, who found the remote bureaucracy unresponsive to their needs.
Can governments find a way to combine the virtues of centralized and decentralized authority without also enduring their vices? The answer, surprisingly, is yes.
A System with the Virtues of Both Centralization and Decentralization?
In the last generation, numerous private firms have shifted from top-down management to team structures that give individual units substantial voice in choosing their companies' ends and means - thereby allowing private sector Coleen Rowleys to weigh in on important issues.
At the same time, these firms do not disintegrate, for the price of local autonomy is openness to evaluation by central headquarters. For example, the design team for a new widget can decide which parts of the widget should be made within the firm and which parts outsourced, but it must justify its decisions by showing that the resulting production process will be superior to those used by competitors.
The shift from hierarchical organizations to what might be called "coordinated decentralization" has not been confined to the private sector. One of the most prominent public sector examples is school reform.
In many states, including Texas under then-Governor George W. Bush, substantial improvements in public school performance were accomplished by holding local districts and schools accountable to statewide standards, while simultaneously permitting these actors to adapt their methods to local conditions. In Texas-style standards-based school reform, information has been the engine of accountability. Schools and districts must provide the state with rich data on student performance, which the state then uses to target resources. Meanwhile, these same data are published on the Internet, thus allowing parents to hold local officials accountable.
The experience of Texas and other states holds obvious lessons for Mayor Bloomberg as he struggles to refashion New York City's schools. Less obviously, it holds lessons for our national leaders in their efforts to fight terrorism as well.
To be sure, there are significant differences between improving public schools and fighting terrorism. Most importantly, where public school reform relies on publicity, infiltrating and disrupting terrorist organizations will often require secrecy. Yet that fact should not blind those charged with homeland security to the virtues of coordinated decentralization.
Information that may not be appropriate for public consumption nonetheless can be permitted to flow freely across organizational barriers among personnel with the requisite security clearances. And at a more general level, government bureaus can be redesigned to operate less like bureaucracies.
Like private sector design teams that begin each project by assessing the state of the art among competing firms, so our national security personnel can be encouraged to constantly question their own operations: What can we learn from approaches in Israel, the U.K., and other countries that face terrorist threats? In guarding against one kind of threat, are we making ourselves vulnerable to other kinds? An effective system of coordinated decentralization would encourage creative thinking about and continual reevaluation of the national security mission.
For both President Bush and Mayor Bloomberg, the challenge is not how to balance the risks of too much central power against the risks of too little. The challenge is to create governance structures that permit information to flow freely without authorizing chaos. That challenge is substantial, but not insuperable.