For my generation, the 1975 music video “I’m just a Bill,” by School House Rock was our first introduction to civics. Kids still watch this classic video. As the cartoon kids sing about how “knowledge is power” – channeling the 17th Century English statesman and scientist Francis Bacon – one gets the strong impression from the video that the creation and implementation of public policy is rational and straightforward. To the rhythm of the catchy tune, cartoon flow charts, with boxes and arrows, show the interaction of the three branches of government and how a bill becomes a law. It’s a good start.
But that’s only part of the story of how politics works. I also grew up watching the television program “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.” It wasn’t a cartoon. Some of the episodes carefully delved into the brutal fact that in the animal kingdom, self-interested animals saw other animals as food and only food. The animal kingdom is about warfare and survival of the fittest.
To be effective in creating good public policy, an elected official must first recognize that man is both rational and self-interested and then do everything he or she can to put the general interest first even if it causes some political pain. How do we ensure the general interest of Auburn residents is served over special financial interests as everyone wants to grab a piece of the budget pie? On page 9 of the City of Auburn’s 2014-15 Budget, is a flow chart that shows a big box inside of which it says in bold type “Residents of Auburn.” Below that, in descending order, are boxes showing the elected officials, City Manager, City Attorney, Department heads and departments. The message from this flow chart is very clear – all public policy should be crafted to serve the interests of Auburn residents, while the special requests from developers, unions, and city employees are secondary.
Francis Bacon’s words “Knowledge is Power” also appears in the Library of Congress in a beautiful mosaic on the first floor in the eastern corridor. It’s a guidepost for creating good public policy. First give residents and policy the information they need to make rational decisions in the general interest. One can see this in three policies that have recently been implemented by the Auburn City Council. First, on July 14, the city council passed its second Performance-Based Budget, which publishes over 100 measurements of how citizen taxpayer dollars are spent. For instance, the budget lists the number and types of incidents that our police and fire department personal respond to, response times, number of acres clear of dry brush, permit activity, square feet of street and sidewalk repair. Second, our “Transparency in Bargaining” policy ensures that the public knows the details and future costs of any collective bargaining agreement with the seven city employee unions.
At the July 14th meeting of the city council we have the culmination of implementing a third “Knowledge is Power” policy. As I’ve argued for the last seven years, we shouldn’t just demand performance accountability from city employees but from those who contract with the city. Our wastewater treatment plant is managed by a private firm and overseen by the city’s Public Works Department. I’ve advocated that we put out the management of our wastewater plant out to bid to see if we could save sewer ratepayers money. At the July 14th city council meeting, CH2M Hill-OMI won the contract based on a combination of quality service and price. Sewer ratepayers will save over $60,000 per year for the next five years. Competitive contracting works.
But these three transparency and accountability policies don’t work in a perfect vacuum. In politics, organized interests too often win at the expense of the general public. For instance, I can speak until I’m blue in the face about the need to allocate general fund money to fix our roads, but if the public doesn’t speak up, the roads will continue to deteriorate. Knowledge is power only if interested citizens use it.
Published in the Auburn Journal on July 23, 2014