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The Trust Issue: The Problem With Government Isn't Its Size

Pete Peterson, a declared candidate for California Secretary of State, argues that conservatives, as defenders of institutions, are in a unique position to deal with our mistrust of government—if only they can shift their focus.


On a recent trip to eastern Los Angeles County to visit a friend working in municipal government, I saw, again, evidences of the new normal: darkened cubicles. “How many employees did the city have back pre-bust?” I asked this senior administrator. “320,” she answered, “but now it’s closer to 190, and that’s not including public safety, which has stayed pretty steady.” While I expected the rest of the conversation to continue in gloomy tones, my friend was upbeat about what the economic collapse had forced the government to do. From an entirely new organizational structure focused on program outcomes to new ways of interacting with the public, which includes asking for their participation in service delivery, it appears this government is not “allowing this crisis to go to waste.” In a recent column in GOVERNING magazine, Bob O’Neill, the executive director of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), borrowed a term from free market icon Joseph Schumpeter to describe what is happening in state/local government as an “era of creative destruction.”

For decades, Republican rhetoric has focused on the “size problem” in government. (The anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist described this ethos fabulously when he thundered, “I just want to shrink [government] down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”) But the fiscal crisis has done far more to shrink government in California than any member of the GOP. For reasons both demographic and pragmatic, Republicans—and particularly California Republicans—need to shift their focus from the easy rhetoric of the “size problem” to the more complex “trust problem” that more people can agree on.

The rhetorical issue over size versus trust becomes a political one when minority voters (and in California, one minority will soon become a majority) are asked their views on the subject. When the Pew Research’s Hispanic Center asked Americans the question, “Would you rather have a smaller government providing fewer services, or a larger government providing more services?,” almost half (48 percent) favored the smaller government approach. Only 19 percent of surveyed Latinos did. When Pew asked Asian Americans a similar question last year, barely a third (36 percent) supported the idea of a smaller government providing fewer services.

For decades, Republican rhetoric has focused on the “size problem” in government. But the fiscal crisis has done far more to shrink government in California than any member of the GOP.

There are two problems with this survey question, but in the problems lie opportunities for California Republicans. One, which any good Republican will be quick to point out, is that it doesn't require respondents to make the necessary trade-off with the possible costs of “more services.” (And, to be fair, “small government” supporters are not asked which services they’d cut.) The fact remains that there is the wide gap between how Republicans regard the scope of government and how growing groups of minority voters see it. And like the kids tell us in that AT&T commercial, in the absence of acknowledged costs “more is better.” But this is well-traversed ground; both sides have settled comfortably into their trenches.

The second—and more immediate—problem with this question has not been adequately addressed by either party. Despite their desire for more services, both minority and majority populations have an increasing distrust of government. When Pew asked Americans last year, “Do you trust government in Washington to do the right thing?,” less than half of Hispanics (44 percent) replied that they did “always” or “most of the time.” And while this was a higher percentage than African Americans (38 percent) and twice as high as whites (20 percent), it is a provocative break from the earlier support for “more government.”

National trust in our government (particularly in Washington, but also here in California) is historically low. Gallup tells us that after a brief period of positive feelings around 9/11, the percentage of Americans saying that they “trust government in Washington to do the right thing just about always or most of the time” is at the lowest point (19 percent) in 20 years. A 2012 Rasmussen survey found that 61 percent of respondents felt the federal government had “become a special interest group that looks out primarily for its own interests.” And the survey participants were all public sector employees.

Some interesting research by Cal Tech’s Michael Alvarez and the University of California-San Diego’s Marisa Abrajano points out that, as Latinos assimilate, their levels of trust in government decrease—that is, first generation Latinos are more trusting than second and third generation. One reason for this is fairly obvious; as the researchers note, “Immigrants who are new to the American political system may not only perceive it as being better than their homeland government but also give credence to the ‘American Dream.’” Alvarez and Abrajano go on to observe that a significant reason for the relatively higher percentages of Latino trust in government is simply because there is a greater percentage of those first generation immigrants in the demographic.

The reasons for distrust in our governing institutions are all around us, from the recent improper investigations by the IRS to the ongoing problems in the Los Angeles County foster-care system to that painful trip to the DMV. But these are not so much “big government” problems as incompetent bureaucratic ones. The City of Bell’s famously corrupt government was not too big, but too corrupt. Now, the city is attempting a dramatic turnaround (recently garnering an “A-“ grade for transparency from the Sunlight Foundation), and it is leadership and civic engagement that have made this possible; the city staff is about the same size as before. As begrudgingly as some of us on the right have to admit it, from snipers to diplomats, from third grade teachers to cops, there are many public sector workers who are, indeed, public servants.

This disconnect—particularly in minority voters—between supporting “larger government/more services” and growing distrust indicates that the bigger issue for a broader base of voters is trust, not size. This “high tax/low performance” dynamic here in California is something Claremont McKenna’s Bill Voegeli has outlined powerfully in a number of pieces (like here and here). And it is to this possibility that California Republicans should be able to offer an alternative that is, at the same time, genuinely conservative, and truly hopeful.

With their longtime support of entrepreneurs, and a Populist strain, which is suspicious toward concentrated power, California Republicans are uniquely prepared to address the challenges of bureaucracy, and form a message that would be more appealing to the state’s diverse electorate. To do this, the message will need to be grounded in several important principles:

Nationally, Republicans have many current and former political leaders in this space, like Stephen Goldsmith at Harvard and Mitch Daniels in Indiana (now at Purdue). Besides these, conservatives have many creative policy thinkers and writers, from Philip K. Howard to Jim Manzi. They recognize that government innovation is not an oxymoron. In many states and cities across America, we may be living through the most fertile period for creative approaches to public service delivery in American history. In a very interesting piece in the current Stanford Social Innovation Review, the writers from the Harvard Business School note: “Throughout the United States and much of the developed world, governments are on the brink of crisis. They need answers to a paradoxical challenge—how to spur economic growth while simultaneously reducing spending. This can be done only when we find novel solutions to the real problems that we have relied on government to solve.”

But we seem to have a dearth of Republican government innovators here in California. The defenders of status quo governance are well known in this state, and few of them are big supporters of the CAGOP. Republicans need to assert themselves in developing new approaches to these challenges. Of course, privatization may be the best solution for some communities looking to keep libraries open and trash picked up, but there are other ways governments and citizens are working together to maintain important public services. When Governor Jerry Brown decided to close 70 state parks to address the budget deficit, a Democratic assemblyman from Marin (Jared Huffman) wrote AB 42, which cut the red tape in allowing localized “public-civic partnerships” to be built between these parks and local non-profits. Most of the parks were saved on a short-term basis, but read the Little Hoover Commission Report for ideas on how these creative solutions might continue. (And I haven’t even begun to discuss the necessary reforms in education policy, where Republicans have obvious advantages in not being compromised by special interests, particularly public sector unions.)

A 2012 Rasmussen survey found that 61 percent of respondents felt the federal government had “become a special interest group that looks out primarily for its own interests.”

Think back on the times when you’ve been exasperated by government, and chances are the reason was not simply that the agency was too large, but that it was either: A. doing something it shouldn’t get involved in; B. doing something at the wrong level (local vs. state vs. fed); or C. doing something incompetently.

To each of these challenges, California Republicans have excellent responses. On A: Republicans understand that there is such a thing as “crowding out”—an economic term defined as the exclusion of citizen participation in community life when government gets involved. This carries adverse impacts both societally and fiscally. Here in California, cities like Fairfield, Monterey, and Walnut Creek have created Priority-Based Budgets with public input. Republicans need to get behind these efforts to engage the public on determining what the public sector should and shouldn’t undertake. On B: Republicans have always led in making arguments about the importance of federalism, and the decentralization of government administration. Read Moises Naim’s book, The End of Power, or Nicco Mele’s The End of Big, and you see that we are in the midst of a global shift in the decentralization of political power. And on C: We notice the state’s problems with even simple tasks like business registration and technology more generally; see my point about “Party of Civic Innovation” above, and the “Party of Performance” below.

Go to websites like the City of Palo Alto’s Open Budget Platform, or the State of Washington’s Budget Visualization Tool, and you realize that the days of the “three-ring binder budgets” are quickly becoming a thing of the past. Technology is forcing clarity to the often-obtuse world of public sector budgets. California Republicans should be a natural proponent for these efforts, but meet tech folks in Silicon Valley working on data visualization or “good government” types who focus on transparency, and you don’t see a lot of Reagan fans. California was recently ranked 49th of 50 states by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund in budget data transparency, receiving an F grade. The California director of PIRG commented, “Unfortunately, while other states are innovating and improving, California is failing.” State Republicans need to be out front on these efforts.

From the Federal Department of Education’s “Race to the Top” competition for funds to San Diego’s “Managed Competition” program, an exploding area of policy-making is using competition to inspire and incentivize creative and efficient government performance. How could these themes not resonate with California Republicans? The ability to match budget outlays to actual performance (i.e., performance-based budgeting) is a significant step in assuring taxpayers that their money is being spent wisely.

Lost in all of the battles over what it should take to become an American citizen is a deeper discussion of what good citizenship actually means. From our founding, foreign observers have marveled at the demands America places on its citizens. In the early 1830s—at the same time the legendary Alexis De Tocqueville was traveling through the United States—a Hungarian, Sandor Farkas, traversed the young nation, describing his experiences in the book, Journey to North America. After witnessing how Americans worked together to deal with issues from education to prisons, Farkas wrote, “in America the people govern, look after their own welfare, and make sacrifices, neither by borrowed power nor by catering to the privileged few, but through the free exercise of self-government—the greatest pleasure of citizenship.”

As governments continue to wrestle with a fiscal crisis complicated by a growing pensions/entitlements crisis, more will be demanded of Californians—not just in the voting booth, but also outside of it. The academic, Ben Berger, describes that beyond political engagement (voting), there is also social engagement (volunteering, participating in clubs), and moral engagement (“a combination of attention, and activity relating to, moral codes and reasoning”). Conservatives have staked out territory on promoting the importance of civics education, but the Party must make this a priority. How could we have too many citizens like the ones Farkas describes?

Finally, California Republicans need to do these things with optimism. No one better than Reagan himself understood the power of aspiration, the central value of the person in finding his or her own happiness, and telling inconvenient truths with a cheerful sensibility. To borrow a military term, California is a “target rich environment” for civic innovation, for creative thinking about the problems of bureaucracy. Republicans generally, and conservatives specifically, are the defenders of institutions—family, civil society, and, yes, government. So while our government isn’t a shining city on the hill, California can be.