About two months back, a drunken idiot plowed his pick-up truck into a group of motorcyclists in New Hampshire, killing seven of them. It soon came out that the driver of the truck shouldn’t have been behind the wheel — neither drunk nor sober — because he’d been picked up on Connecticut on a DUI in May and those officers put in a request to the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles to suspend his license.
That never happened, which has led to the resignation of the RMV chief and a whole lot of hand-wringing by local pundits and pols about where to assign the blame. The current narrative — played out in the political theater of a legislative investigation — is another go-round of the eternal “just another dysfunctional” public agency. While the RMV did fuck up big-time, both the rot and the blame stretch far wider and implicate some of the folks who’ve been most forcefully pointing their fingers.
“How did this happen?” they ask.
Let me tell you how it did.
First, you elect a “moderate” Republican cipher for a governor on a platform of creating a more “business-like” and “efficient” public sector in the state. Career political operatives with little experience or institutional knowledge are installed as department heads. What administrative lifers remain choose to keep their heads down and kiss-up to the new regime.
Agencies who’ve been running with insufficient funding for decades are asked to stretch themselves even further. Vacant positions are left unfilled or outright abolished. Maybe there are even some strategic layoffs carried out as both political purge and a warning to the folks who managed to survive them.
Buzzwords and catchphrases are bandied about: “Work smarter, not harder!” “Best practices!” “Removing occupational silos!”
All boil down to the same thing, which is to up the workload of an already insufficient rank-and-file staffing pool. They do their level best to rise to the occasion, out of fear for their jobs if not a sense of civic duty, but it simply isn’t enough to deal with workloads which are steadily growing in size and complexity.
Something has to give, and it’s not going to be an administrator sticking their neck out for additional hires. Every signal given by the higher-ups on the chain points to “no” when it comes to expanding the department’s payroll. So much so, that even asking is tantamount to admitting failure.
“Jane managed to staff the entire Ed Department with two cardboard cutouts and a Roomba so I don’t know what your problem is.”
It becomes a precarious balancing act where budgets must remain trim but outward-facing services are expected to be first-rate. Behind the scenes drudgery, the unsexy shit that needs doing but the public doesn’t see, gets booted down the triage ladder. There’s a plan to deal with it, eventually, within the context of some never-arriving budgetary rapture. The important thing is keeping up enough of a facade of functionality to prevent high-level administrators from losing face.
Until a drunk asshole plows through a bunch of bunch of motorcyclists. Or insufficiently maintained infrastructure leads to a subway train derailment. Or a social services staffing crunch endangers a child in a mediagenic fashion.
The gaggle of penny-wise, pound-foolish assholes who encouraged and abetted these dysfunctions take to the airwaves and feature columns and legislative podiums to announce how shocked — SHOCKED — they are about the present state of affairs and lament that they weren’t informed about the problems sooner. Then they ritually wash their hands before taking a colossal dump on the rank and file folks who’d been struggling to keep things running through the period of mandated austerity.