The Great Dysfunction or Lessons in how Not to Govern

Our nation survived the Great Depression and it has survived the more recent Great Recession.  The question now is whether it will survive the Great Dysfunction.

While the focus of many pundits and politicians is now on Congress’ inability to pass a budget, resulting in one Continuing Resolution after another, invention of new phrases such as the Fiscal Cliff, and the current sequestration scare, a closer examination reveals that Congress has recently been unable to pass other basic legislation that is long past due.

In my own field of Education Advocacy, the most glaring example of the Great Dysfunction is the failure of Congress to reauthorize or amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) formerly known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The NCLB was passed with bipartisan support in 2001 under President George W. Bush.  While the basic goal of having no child fall behind in school was laudable, the law was deeply flawed in many ways, including:

  • failure to provide children who were left behind with any individual remedies;
  • utilizing blunt punishments against individual schools and whole school districts whose students were not doing well on certain performance measures, without providing the necessary support to remedy those failures; and
  • over-realiance on deeply flawed standardized tests to determine whether schools were succeeding or failing to educate children.

NCLB required that 100% of all school children be proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014, with dire consequences for schools and school districts that failed to meet that standard.  While that sounded nice to politicians in 2001, as 2014 loomed closer, it became exceedingly obvious that such a standard was simply impossible to meet.

NCLB was set up to be reauthorized with probable changes in 2007, with the understanding that this law was experimental and would need adjustments.  Indeed, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy worked side by side with President Bush to try to accomplish that goal prior to both of their departures from office, but due to the Great Dysfunction, they failed to achieve passage.

President Obama took up the mantle by renaming NCLB by its old name, the ESEA, and proposed sweeping changes in 2010.  In fact, the Senate Education Committee passed bi-partisan revisions in 2011.  But, once again, the Great Dysfunction took over and the bill did not pass.

Given the looming disastrous 2014 deadline, and the overriding power of the Great Dysfunction, the Obama Administration began to implement state by state waivers of the ESEA in 2012.  As of right now, 44 states along with Washington DC, Puerto Rico and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, have requested waivers.  The Dept. of Education has granted 34 states and the District of Columbia’s waiver requests.

Thus, the result of the Great Dysfunction in our schools is that the largest federal funding stream for our nation’s public schools is now implemented in at least 36 different ways through 35 different waivers and the remaining states continuing to operate under the now universally reviled NCLB.  While some members of Congress have chastised this overreach of Executive authority, there has simply been no progress to pass a revised ESEA.

A more detailed history of this debacle is available from the NY Times.

The question is, what will it take to emerge from the Great Dysfunction?  While many may say that we get the democracy we serve, Benjamin Disraeli put it well when he declared that,

The world is weary of statesmen whom democracy has degraded into politicians.

What we so desperately need are for our politicians to turn into statesmen, who recognize that the Great Dysfunction serves no one.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

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The Fallacy in Government Budgeting

For many years, advocates of streamlining government have suggested that government should operate like a business, using phrases like “government should not spend money that it does not have.”  While such phrases may sound appealing, these same business oriented advocates tend to pick and choose which parts of government they think should operate like a business to suit their policy goals, instead of actually applying sound business principles to all aspects of government.

At the state level, the most obvious example of the diametrically opposed methods of budgeting is how most states budget for roads versus how they budget for schools. Not only do most states budget as much road money as road builders request for both new projects and repairs, but specific projects are then put out to bid and states award the contracts based on the amount the road builders claim it will cost to perform the work requested.  This is how business typically works.  A business wants to buy a product or service.  It examines the cost, determines if it has the money, and pays the required cost if it has the money.  Some are so concerned about keeping road money sacrosanct that in Wisconsin, they are moving closer to a Constitutional Amendment to preserve the Transportation Fund from being used for anything other than transportation projects.

When budgeting for education, on the other hand, absolutely no serious consideration is given to how much it costs to educate children properly.  Rather, a pure political decision is made about how much money government is willing to spend on educating children, and then school districts are told to produce high achieving students without any consideration about whether the funding is sufficient to accomplish the desired goal.

Tonight, Governor Walker will announce a biennial budget proposal that calls for vastly increased per pupil funding for children in voucher schools vs. public schools.

The governor’s proposed budget would increase state aid to kindergarten-through-eighth-grade voucher schools in the 2014-’15 school year to $7,050 per pupil from $6,442, an increase of $608 per pupil, or 9.4%…Walker is also rejecting an increase in the state-imposed cap in revenues that public schools are allowed to raise from both the state and local property-tax payers. Before Walker’s tenure, the cap had gone up around $200-plus most years. Two years ago, Walker cut the cap by 5.5%, or about $550 per student.

Leaving aside the issue of the lack of any documented improved educational performance in voucher schools, the budgeting question is this: why is there a complete lack of budgeting analysis about how much it costs to achieve the clearly identified state and federal education standards that are written into law?

There is a method for doing this kind of education budgeting.  It is called, “Adequacy.”  The Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools (WAES) started promoting adequacy funding as far back as 2003.  However, even WAES stopped promoting it as it has failed to gain political traction.  In many states, the failure to adequately budget for successful educational outcomes has resulted in litigation, which has had mixed results.

An additional disparity between business based budgeting and both school and human services budgeting is that business would never appropriately refuse to raise revenue.  No business can survive without bringing in revenue.  Yet, ever since the Reagan taxpayer revolution, those who want to reduce spending on education and human services believe it appropriate to take the government revenue side of the equation off the table.  They should be challenged on business grounds, i.e., if they were running a business would they take revenue off the table?

Ultimately, whether in business or in government, if you want a good product that produces a good result, you have to pay an appropriate price for it.  If that means raising revenue, then raise it in a responsible manner as I described in my prior tax reform blog posts:

It is time to have honest business like budgeting when educating our children instead of using them as political pawns.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Evaluating the Effectiveness of Advocacy

As a professional advocate, working in a variety of settings for a wide range of causes for nearly 28 years, I have only occasionally observed advocacy organizations engage in honest self reflection after an advocacy effort has concluded in order to determine how effective the effort was and make any necessary changes for future efforts.  Sadly, what often occurs instead when advocacy efforts fail is a haphazard casting of blame on external factors (e.g., insufficient funding or lack of support from a decision making body).

Previously, my blog has covered the issues of How System Change Happens and Strong Governing Boards: Critical to Long Term Organizational Success.  While the concepts contained in those posts certainly will enhance the probability of effective advocacy, after-the-fact evaluation of advocacy efforts is a third critical step to enhance the probability of long-term advocacy success.

Keys to effective advocacy evaluation include:

  • Define the anticipated result of the advocacy effort at the outset.  Failure to do so makes effective evaluation impossible.  Is the goal to pass a law or simply to raise awareness?  It is critical that advocates establish a reasonable anticipated result or they will be doomed to failure and likely resort to outward casting of blame, when the fault lies with the initial failure of the advocates to be realistic.
  • Break down the advocacy process and analyze each step for effectiveness. Did each step have sufficient resources?  Were unanticipated surprises dealt with effectively?  Were all available tools utilized effectively (e.g., print media, social media, strategic meetings with decision makers)?
  • Was the timeline reasonable? Sometimes the short term effort failed, not because the advocacy effort is doomed to long-term failure, but because short-term success was simply not a realistic goal due to insufficient resources, lack of political support, and/or media attention drawn elsewhere. This realization becomes an opportunity to regroup for the next advocacy effort on the issue at hand.
  • If successful, analyze the follow up steps needed to ensure ongoing success.  All too often, when advocates achieve their immediate goal, they forget that success may be transitory if effective follow up with those who must implement the achieved goal does not happen.
  • If unsuccessful, determine whether the goal is simply unrealistic to achieve, the available tools and resources are insufficient to achieve the goal, and/or the effort simply needs more time.  If the goal was unrealistic, advocates must decide whether to shift goals or simply learn to make their goals more realistic in the future.  If the tools and resources were insufficient, advocates need to assess whether additional resources and tools can be brought to bear for the next effort. If the effort simply needs more time, then advocates should set clear timelines for the next stage of their effort.

A good example of how a long term advocacy effort added tools to achieve success was the 12 year effort I led to pass Wisconsin’s law prohibiting the inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint of school children.

After 8 years of legislative failure, it became clear that broadening the coalition supporting this bill, and publishing the horrific stories of children who suffered from these practices, would be critical next steps.  So, Disability Rights Wisconsin, Wisconsin FACETS, and Wisconsin Family Ties, produced Out of Darkness…Into the Light: New Approaches to Reducing the Use of Seclusion and Restraint with Wisconsin Children.  This publication, released through a Capitol press conference, led to a highly charged Senate Education committee hearing.  Though it did not result in the bill’s passage, it set the bill up for passage in the next session.

However, rather than rely on later passage, which was by no means guaranteed, we determined that additional tools were necessary, including better grassroots organizing, so we created a successful Facebook page: Wisconsinites Concerned About Seclusion and Restraint which helped further the campaign.

After 12 years of advocacy, Act 125 was passed unanimously during the most contentious of Wisconsin legislatures and signed into law by Gov. Walker with victims, advocates and Democratic legislators present.

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Advocates looking for additional resources to evaluate the effectiveness of their advocacy can check these web sites:  Bolder Advocacy from the Alliance for Justice and the Advocacy Planning and Evaluation Program from the Aspen Institute.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Strong Governing Boards: Critical to Long Term Organizational Success

All corporations, as well as many governmental bodies (e.g. school districts) have governing boards.  While the nature of small non-profits, large multi-national corporations and school boards vary widely, they all have one thing in common. Failure to create, maintain and sustain a strong governing board will ultimately lead to the long term failure of the organization, large or small.

All too often, organizations that appear successful, if for-profit, by making money; if non-profit, by successfully fulfilling their non-profit mission, overlook this critical aspect of their Boards of Directors, because they view their boards as mere advisory committees, and their CEOs, Executive Directors and Superintendents, prefer to work without interference.  Sooner or later, either when problems arise, or when the need to replace leadership (whether suddenly or with plenty of notice), the Board is faced with critical decisions which only it can make that are essential to the long term success of the organization.

Three cases in point will exemplify how important a strong governing board is to the long term success of any board governed organization.

Congress received an extensive report about the wide variety of Board failures involved in the Enron scandal.  The Permanent Committee on Investigations found the following major Board failures:

  • Fiduciary Failure
  • High Risk Accounting
  • Inappropriate Conflicts of Interest
  • Extensive Undisclosed Off-The-Books Activity
  • Excessive Compensation
  • Lack of Independence

Sadly, over 10 years later, the lessons of Enron go unheeded, despite the passage of Sarbanes-Oxley.  Thus, there is no reason to believe another Enron cannot happen.

In Madison, Wisconsin, the School Board is engaged in a search for a new Superintendent.  The Board just announced that it has reduced the candidates down to 2 finalists.  Yet, one day after this announcement, it has become apparent that the Board’s search process was severely flawed as one of the candidates has been involved in numerous scandals, which the current School Board President stated he did not know about until informed by a reporter.  Clearly, the Board was not sufficiently involved in the hiring process to let it go this far without adequately vetting the candidates before deciding upon the finalists.

Finally, on a personal note, as many of my readers know, I spent 17 highly productive years at a non-profit which was governed by an intentionally weak and distant Board.  The Board was so weak and distant that when the prior Executive Director retired after 31 years of service, it could not post the the job until a head hunter interviewed 20 staff to determine the needs of the agency, which the Board simply did not know.  This lack of Board knowledge was created by the fact that the Board had never evaluated the prior ED during his entire 31 years of service.

The result?  The Board hired a new Executive Director without any management experience who was simply not qualified for the job.  He fired me about 8 months after he started and then recently resigned after just over a year on the job, and has left the agency diminished and in disarray.  Sadly, the Board has failed to acknowledge its own responsibility for this debacle. After failing once again to evaluate the short-lived ED, it has announced that it will use the same flawed process in its next ED search.

The lesson is really quite simple.  Boards need to exercise their required statutory fiduciary duties.  They cannot do so without sufficient knowledge of the inner workings of the entity which they govern.  That requires, at a minimum, an full 360 degree evaluation of the Executive Director/CEO/Superintendent, on an annual basis.

Having served on and led successful Boards of Directors, I am quite familiar with how this can be done both the right way and the wrong way.  The best organizations do it the right way.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.