Thursday, June 16, 2011

Forward to the Past.

Much ado in Houston today about City Council offering 50+ amendments to Mayor Parker's proposed "austerity" budget. Some Council members want to cut deeper (Sullivan), some want to make sure they're not inconvenienced by all of this (Adams), some want to further cut the police force budget to fund community centers (Clutterbuck) and some just want.....well....Chris Moran of Chron.com says it nicely...

({Council}Members offer own ideas to trim the budget. Chris Moran, Chron.com)

Councilwoman Jolanda Jones proposed that the city set a goal of having minority-owned firms get 35 percent of the city's business, more than triple the current goal for purchasing contracts and well above the existing goals in construction and professional services.
OK then.

What's not made clear is how this proposal would cut spending at all?

My early guess would be no. The problem with quotas, whether real or implied, is that they often lead to a company/agency/group having to accept a sub-par offer in order to meet them. A second problem is that the Houston has long been a "majority-minority" city, with Hispanics making up the largest slice of the population pie. Unless specifically written out, Caucasian business are "minority" by definition. Of course, I realize that's not the goal here. The goal is to make sure that contracts are given to companies that are not owned predominantly by Caucasian males, and I agree that who owns the company shouldn't have anything to do with who gets the contractual nod. I also agree that, from time to time, pockets of racism show up in American society. Racism is a terrible thing, being a mix of Caucasian and Native American I have to admit that I've typically been free from it's horribleness pretty much all my life.* So I'm with you there.

My question is whether or not a quota system is the best way to address this. A better, fairer, way would be to write procurement rules that ensure in no way can a person's gender, race, creed or sexual orientation be used as a means of denying a contract. This suggests that the best offer (which, by the way, might not always be the cheapest) is always accepted, even if the owner of the company is Dennis Rodman.

The upside of this is that it assumes that traditional minority businesses are quite capable of turning out a product as good, if not better, than their Caucasian male counterparts. The downside is that the cost of equality is eternal vigilance.** There would also have to be fairly strong review processes in place, not unlike private industry FWIW.

You hear a lot from local pols about "running government like a business". Which really is code for "I'm going to bring in people I've done business with in the past." The thing is, Government really doesn't work like a business at all. Most Government procedures are designed to push decision-making authority down the ladder to the lowest position possible. Therefore you have clerks making go/no-go decisions on contracts, inspectors shutting down projects that cost a business owner thousands just because they can.

The main problem with Government isn't that it's bloated (although that is a problem) it's that it's accountability and oversight systems suck. What government, at all levels, really needs is accountability from the top. It needs managers to analyze the goings-on in the departments for which they are responsible, and for elected officials to keep an eye on the things they're supposed to be keeping an eye on. Instead we get a City contract system that still needs to be told that it's a good idea to consider minority contracts, which leads to elected officials deciding that a good way to get re-elected in the face of ethics charges is to pander to their base. Meanwhile a local business gets it's very expensive new patio shut down because some low-level inspector didn't see a patio permit on the wall.

Is this really the way you expect your government to work?




*Most of my life, except recently, where I've started to see instances of so-called reverse-racism. For instance, I've heard a minority manager for a company I worked for say they would never hire "white men" to work for them. Fortunately I was in another department so I got the job.

**Apologies to Thomas Jefferson.

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