Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Incomplete voting

That's the end result of my visit to my local polling place this morning.

There were a number of situations where I didn't like any of the choices offered to me on the ballot (most notably the Presidential contest), so I simply declined to vote for any of them. I did, however, cast votes for those offices where the options didn't make me want to hold my nose...

Thinking that the vote-counting machinery (we use fill-in-the-circle ballots) might puke, I carefully penciled in a brief note (in an unused area of the ballot) stating that the blank spots were deliberate.

This whole electoral college, delegates, superdelegates, and assorted flim-flamery undoubtedly made sense back when transportation and communications were slow and unreliable; but in these days of jet aircraft, radios, the Internet, and all the rest... I think it's time we re-thought the whole process with an eye toward updating it to more accurately represent the desires of the people actually casting the votes.

An Open Letter

3. June 2008

Sen. John Tester
204 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510-2604

A bit of research I did for a blog post on the size of government revealed that there is a higher number of federal employees, as a function of total U.S. population, now than ever before in the history of the United States. Using numbers from official Government documents, I learned that back in 1946 there was a Federal employee for every 51 citizens; as of 1999, that number had changed to a Federal employee for ever 21 people.
Naturally enough, that simple bit of information prompted me to ask myself “Are we getting twice as much help from the government as we were back then?” Immediately following that was the question “How do I tell?”
Those two small, simple questions started me on a small personal quest for knowledge that has lasted the better part of a month, and involved no small amount of effort – to no avail.
Instead, what I have discovered is that it is virtually impossible to tell (except at the most cursory level) just how much of what any particular government agency or department is doing, at what cost, for anything but brief periods of time. By way of illustration, let me use the Department of Veterans Affairs:
  • Over the course of 7 years, the VA changed the formatting of its budget reports no less than 3 times, making it nigh impossible to do any kind of comparison.
  • There is no indication that the VA has ever undergone any kind of outside audit of its operations. Its budget is reviewed and certified by an outside accounting agency, but the basis of those numbers is less than obvious.
  • It is considerably less than straightforward to determine the (relative) efficiency of the VA from its budget. Only gross accounting of the numbers of people assisted is provided, with virtually no added detail available.
  • The little bit of self-analysis the VA does of its operations reveals that the VA isn't even meeting its own self-assigned goals.
Evidence of these facts is amply demonstrated in the VAs own annual reports, available online at http://www.va.gov/budget/report/2007/index.htm, and the previous years budgets (linked at the bottom of the page linked). In checking other government agencies (DOE, EPA, and HUD, among others), I found that the VA is fairly typical in this regard.
While there is some small amount of information available courtesy of such sites as ExpectMore.gov, USAspending.gov, and even the OMB, there is still a noteworthy lack of accountability demonstrated or expressed by government agencies and offices. Again, to use the VA as an example:
  • How many veterans are receiving medical care? What is the cost of that care, both in terms of personnel and drugs? How much of the budget is spent on medical professionals, versus desk jockeys?
  • How many veterans are receiving educational assistance? How much are these veterans receiving in direct disbursement, versus how much is being spent on administration?
  • How does the VA decide what facilities go where? Is there a VA medical facility of X square feet and Y people for every Z veterans?
  • What other government agencies and entities does the VA routinely deal with? Are those interactions as streamlined and efficient as possible?
  • How does the VA decide what services to provide in a particular area, versus contracting them out? (e.g. Who decides that it's acceptable for a veteran to travel 200+ miles [Billings to Ft. Harrison; 6 hours travel time plus $140 travel expenses] for an eye exam, versus paying $50-75 to a local optician?)
Similar questions could – and should – be asked of virtually every government office and agency: as Abraham Lincoln so ably put it, government should be “of the people, by the people, and for the people” – and government employees frittering away money they've been entrusted with on such things as luxury conferences at a Hilton hotel in Hawaii when that conference could more economically have been held at a Holiday Inn in Indianapolis is not (and should not be) acceptable by any stretch of the imagination.
Considering how much the government has grown in the last 60 years, I think it would also be worthwhile to start asking the various agencies to justify some of what they do: on the ExpectMore.gov website, they have a page (actually, FIVE pages) of the least-effective programs in the Federal bureaucracy; by their calculation, twenty-eight percent of Federal programs are inefficient or not demonstrating the desired results.
Senator, you were elected to office on the premise that you were just a 'regular guy' that wanted to try to get Washington straightened out. Have you become ensnared by the system you went there to fix? Now that you're IN Washington, has your opinion of government inefficiency and waste changed from how you felt on your farm?
I shall look forward to receiving your response to this letter; particularly whether that response is of the generic 'canned' variety, or includes actual facts and details.


David K. Merriman