Thursday, January 31, 2013

Kludgeocracy: Government Through Patchwork Fixes

As the recent “fiscal cliff” episode highlights, there are serious ongoing debates about the size of government in the United States. Underneath the cacophony of partisan voices across the political spectrum, Steven Teles points to a larger inherent problem in our democratic decision-making structure. In his provocative recent essay, “Kludgeocracy: the American Way of Policy,” he argues we are witnessing the rise of “kludgeocracy,” a form of government “with no ideological justification whatsoever” (1). This results in layered policy solutions, and multiple mechanisms that can distance citizens from decision-making processes. Teles defines kludgeocracy as:

“an ill-assorted collection of parts assembled to fulfill a particular purpose…a clumsy but temporarily effective solution to a particular fault or problem.” The term comes out of the world of computer programming, where a kludge is an inelegant patch put in place to be backward compatible with the rest of a system. When you add up enough kludges, you get a very complicated program, one that is hard to understand and subject to crashes. In other words, Windows” [Microsoft’s operating system] (1).
He continues:

“‘Clumsy but temporarily effective’ also describes much of American public policy. For any particular problem we have arrived at the most gerry-rigged, opaque and complicated response. From the mind-numbing complexity of the health care system (which has only gotten more complicated, if also more just, after the passage of Obamacare), our Byzantine system of funding higher education, and our bewildering federal-state system of governing everything from the welfare state to environmental regulation, America has chosen more indirect and incoherent policy mechanisms than any comparable country” (1-2).
The implications for kludgeocracy are numerous, with the most insidious feature being the “hidden, indirect and frequently corrupt distribution of its costs” (2). Teles uses the current U.S. tax code as an example of kludgeocracy. The tax code, he suggests, is “almost certainly the most complicated in the Western world, both on the individual and corporate side” (2). There are estimates that direct and indirect costs for complying with the complexity of the tax code are $163 billion each year. That is in addition to 6.1 billion hours spent complying with the filling requirements of the tax code. Taxes are but one example of the costs of kludgeocracy at work.

With layer upon layer, public policy becomes more complex and vexing. As a result, organized interests have a much more realistic possibility of shaping policy rather than average citizens. This is especially true when issues are out of the public gaze (3). Moreover, Kludgeocracy reinforces the image of government incompetence and/or corruption by masking the government’s extensive role in our lives through habits of “dishonesty and evasiveness rather than openly making the argument for a muscular role for government.” For instance, the fact that so much of our welfare state is jointly administered by either intergovernmental agencies or through private contractors makes it very difficult to attribute responsibility when things go wrong. This leads to blame for the government in general rather than being “affixed precisely, where such blame could do some good.” One result of kludgeocracy, then, is “diffuse cynicism, which is the opposite of the habit needed for good democratic citizenship” (4). What are citizens to do when they have no idea what agency or agencies to engage about an issue of public importance?

The costs of kludgeocracy lead to questions about what to do in response. This requires that we understand why American politics has so frequently turned to “kludge solutions.” Teles identifies three interlocking causes: the structure of American institutions, the desire to preserve the fiction of small government while also addressing public problems, and the emergence of a “kludge industry” that supplies a “constant stream of complicated, roundabout solutions” (4). The implication of these interlocking issues is that this complexity leaves citizens out of public decisions because our system of government, and the kludge industry intimately connected with it, functions without opportunities to include strong citizen voices.

American institutions generate complex policy partly because of numerous
“veto points for action.” Not only is there separation of power between Congress’ two bodies and the president, but there are also other less obvious veto points such as separate subcommittees. The recently passed health care reform bill went through five separate committees in Congress, for example. This is all in addition to hyper-partisanship and the ability to filibuster within the Senate. This veto power functions less as a roadblock and more as a tollbooth, with “the toll-taker able to extract a price in exchange for his or her willingness to allow legislation to keep moving.” It is through this process that programs don’t get changed or replaced, but added to as “new ideas have to be layered over old programs” (5).

In addition to this “tollbooth” legislative process, once laws are passed the dynamic between levels of government in our federal system is affected by kludgeocracy. The federal and state governments are “pervasively intertwined” and this leads to what has often been called “marble-cake federalism.” The consequence is that domestic policy in the United States lacks clearly defined lines of responsibility. Additionally, spending is also done in a way that is best described as “indirect.” Federal monies come with a bewildering array of regulations and requirements. The result is that Americans have a more active, but also incoherent and frequently ineffective, state (7).

In addition to the kludge of government, an “army of consultants and contractors” has made itself an indispensible piece in the kludge pie; the kludge industry has “significant resources to invest to ensure that government programs maintain their complexity, and hence the need to purchase their services” (7). This expert-focused approach to complex policy issues further diminishes the voice and agency of those outside the kludge industry.

So what gets us out of this mess?  Teles notes that kludgeocracy is not an accident; rather, it is a predictable consequence of deep features of the American regime. Because of this, it would be facile to pretend that “its baleful effects can be reduced without major (and extremely unlikely) changes in our larger system of government and dominant values.” But Teles suggests that subtle changes can occur at the margins and offers his own list of remedies. These include eliminating or radically reducing the filibuster in the Senate and substantially reconsidering our system of federal grants to states, among other recommendations. But his recommendations are squarely focused at federal government and become somewhat perplexing when he admits that significant institutional reform is, at best, a long shot. When is reforming how the Senate functions, for example, not a serious challenge? Nevertheless, Teles suggests that a more plausible target is an attack on the kludge industry, “given that it both lives off of and helps create demand for policy complexity” (8). The most important tool against policy complexity, he argues, is a change “not in institutions, interests, and rules, but in ideas” (8). It is only when politicians are explicitly associated with kludginess that change might begin to occur. To accomplish this, there is a necessary step of increasing the “visibility of policy complexity’s costs” so that politicians and citizens might recognize what is occurring (9).

Making kludgeocracy into a recognized public problem will be an uphill battle, Teles warns, but helping citizens see the manifestations of it in their ordinary lives is an essential first step. Teles writes: “When they get frustrated trying to figure their way through federal education aid programs, or flustered trying to understand their taxes, or perplexed at the complications of our civil litigation system, they need to recognize their problem as a part of a larger system that connects up to other, seemingly unconnected grievances” (9). Teles argues that giving a name to the designed complexity of piecemeal governance—kludgeocracy—is a necessary step if American democracy is to be simpler and more effective. From the standpoint of being concerned about the sidelining of citizens, Kettering can benefit from this line of research because utilizing the term “kludgeocracy” is yet another way of naming the institutional and systemic challenges inhibiting citizens from having a stronger role to play in policy decision-making. Whether the term becomes something used or not, the ideas behind kludgeocracy could be useful to Kettering’s thinking about the challenges of a highly professionalized and expert-driven approach to public problems.