Making Better Sense of Government

August 5, 2010 by Ash Roughani

Wikipedia contributors define quantum mechanics (QM) as “a branch of physics providing a mathematical description of much of the dual particle-like and wave-like behavior and interactions of energy and matter.” It’s true: some concepts are more difficult to comprehend than others.

Why must the structure of government be so complicated? An extraterrestrial visitor would reasonably conclude that something created of, by, and for the people should make sense to most people. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Even some of us who work at California Forward are often puzzled about which agencies are responsible for which programs.

KQED political reporter John Myers posted an excellent diagnosis of California’s incoherent governmental structure on his Capital Notes blog. He writes,

“[H]ere's the bottom line: few disagree that the responsibilities and resources of government services could be better aligned, so that Californians are getting what they want... and when they don't get, know who to blame.” You can read the full piece to learn more about the causes of this tangled structure. But the main lesson is that when you account for the different taxes we pay and the different levels of government to whom we pay them—then consider the public services that different levels of government provide, very little about this structure makes rational sense.

The problem isn’t new. In February 1993, the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) issued an appropriately titled report, Making Government Make Sense, which offers the following principles for reforming this mess:

•Maximize separation of state and local government duties through appropriate alignments of control and funding responsibilities.

•Match redistributive programs with redistributive revenue sources at the highest level of government.

•Recognize program linkages by restructuring to promote coordination of service delivery mechanisms, removing barriers to innovation.

•Rely on financial incentives to promote prevention and coordination. Translation: restructure authority, finances, expectations, and accountability so that decision-making is closest to the people.

The LAO report goes on to outline the ideal assignment of basic governmental responsibilities for the most appropriate level of government: 


This won’t be easy to do. Efforts at large-scale change often collapse from their own weight. But given the current crisis of public confidence, we think there is an unprecedented window of opportunity before the state.

In our forthcoming civic dialogues, we’ll be asking you to help us figure out how government could make better sense so that public services are financed and administered in a way that delivers better outcomes in your local community. Stay tuned…

Ash Roughani is a project associate at California Forward.