Governmental Culture, A Tough Nut To Crack

In early 2011, the word was out. Incoming Gov. Rick Snyder was going to change the “governmental culture” in Lansing.

Yet, that culture remains virtually the same as it has been for decades. In spite of the brave assertion of two and a half years ago, it is neither significantly altered nor even shaken.

Government, under its most accurate definition, consists of more than just the politicians, bureaucrats, attorneys and bean counters who receive their paychecks from the taxpayers. It also includes lobbyists, associations, coalitions, public relations firms and political party functionaries who serve an array of special interests.

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In a sense, all of these people share the same job. For them, personal success hinges on the degree to which they achieve what the special interests they represent seek.

Meanwhile, most of the politicians, bureaucrats, attorneys and bean counters are doing a slightly different version of the same thing. Whether it is a politician posturing for the next election or a bureaucrat fending off possible cuts to their particular program or department, their focus is always on their own self-interests.

So it is completely natural for those who work in, or close to, our state government, to use techniques and tricks of the trade that have proven successful in the past.  The tendency to rely on these techniques form what might be called the current “governmental culture.” However, it should be noted that this “governmental culture” is not sufficient unto itself. It is actually a reflection of, and reaction to, the prevailing political process. If the techniques and tricks of the trade cease to yield desired results, the “governmental culture” must change.

Gov. Snyder had a golden opportunity to send a strong message that he intended to force such a change. In his first State of the State Address he promised that the performance of programs and practices would be measured. Implicit to this idea was the premise that what was working would be kept intact or expanded, and what wasn't working would be disposed of.

Had Gov. Snyder ended this part of his address at that juncture, it would have been incomplete but at least worthwhile. Instead, he used one of the worst examples he could have chosen. Pointing to Pure Michigan, which is basically the state's ongoing advertising campaign, he claimed its performance had been measured and proven to be successful.

The truth is that it is probably impossible to objectively measure the performance of a promotional campaign like Pure Michigan. Gov. Snyder's claim was based on a survey done by a firm with a track record of never finding the promotional campaigns of any states to be anything other than successful.

What's more, the methodology of the survey was a joke. It lacked any sort of control over who participated and how many times they participated. Absolutely nothing prevented proponents of Pure Michigan from filling out multiple survey sheets, giving glowing recommendations about the program, and turning them in to be tabulated. No one who is truly serious about gauging performance would accept the results of a survey that used such a transparently flawed method.

This use of the Pure Michigan survey as an example of government measuring performance completely altered the meaning of Gov. Snyder's message. To anyone in and around government, it meant that, while the new governor was giving lip service to making a significant change, he really was giving a nod to doing the same old stuff.

Perhaps inadvertently, Gov. Snyder made a key move toward transparency regarding Pure Michigan. He has blended it into the Michigan Economic Development Corp. to an extent that it is virtually impossible to separate the two entities. This blending serves to clarify what many have always known, which is that MEDC is basically just the state's advertising and promotional wing.

When viewed in this way, it puts a different light on the millions of dollars the MEDC spends on “economic development.” While it is, arguably, impossible to measure the success of the Pure Michigan promotions, the performance of MEDC's economic development programs can be, and should be, measured.

Unfortunately, Gov. Snyder has yet to take the step that would put teeth in his promise of measuring performance. No one should expect an advertising and promotional agency to give honest evaluations of the very same programs that it promotes.

This task should be given to an outside agency that has nothing at stake, regardless of the findings its investigations unveil. If Gov. Snyder had made that move two and a half years ago, it would have sent a meaningful message that he was serious about changing the “governmental culture” in Lansing.

Instead, the entire idea apparently no longer is operative. No one in the Snyder administration seems to be talking about changing the culture anymore. At this point it is fair to ask: To what degree has that culture changed him?

(Editor’s Note: Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Michigan Capitol Confidential. He is a veteran Lansing-based journalist. His columns do not represent viewpoints of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy or Michigan Capitol Confidential.)

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