April 19, 2004

KIWIFY, KIWIFY:

Rolling Back Government: Lessons from New Zealand (Maurice P. McTigue, April 2004, Imprimis)

When a reform government was elected in 1984, it identified three problems: too much spending, too much taxing and too much government. The question was how to cut spending and taxes and diminish government’s role in the economy. Well, the first thing you have to do in this situation is to figure out what you’re getting for dollars spent. Towards this end, we implemented a new policy whereby money wouldn’t simply be allocated to government agencies; instead, there would be a purchase contract with the senior executives of those agencies that clearly delineated what was expected in return for the money. Those who headed up government agencies were now chosen on the basis of a worldwide search and received term contracts – five years with a possible extension of another three years. The only ground for their removal was non-performance, so a newly-elected government couldn’t simply throw them out as had happened with civil servants under the old system. And of course, with those kinds of incentives, agency heads – like CEOs in the private sector – made certain that the next tier of people had very clear objectives that they were expected to achieve as well.

The first purchase that we made from every agency was policy advice. That policy advice was meant to produce a vigorous debate between the government and the agency heads about how to achieve goals like reducing hunger and homelessness. This didn’t mean, by the way, how government could feed or house more people – that’s not important. What’s important is the extent to which hunger and homelessness are actually reduced. In other words, we made it clear that what’s important is not how many people are on welfare, but how many people get off welfare and into independent living.

As we started to work through this process, we also asked some fundamental questions of the agencies. The first question was, “What are you doing?” The second question was, “What should you be doing?” Based on the answers, we then said, “Eliminate what you shouldn’t be doing” – that is, if you are doing something that clearly is not a responsibility of the government, stop doing it. Then we asked the final question: “Who should be paying – the taxpayer, the user, the consumer, or the industry?” We asked this because, in many instances, the taxpayers were subsidizing things that did not benefit them. And if you take the cost of services away from actual consumers and users, you promote overuse and devalue whatever it is that you’re doing.

When we started this process with the Department of Transportation, it had 5,600 employees. When we finished, it had 53. When we started with the Forest Service, it had 17,000 employees. When we finished, it had 17. When we applied it to the Ministry of Works, it had 28,000 employees. I used to be Minister of Works, and ended up being the only employee. In the latter case, most of what the department did was construction and engineering, and there are plenty of people who can do that without government involvement. And if you say to me, “But you killed all those jobs!” – well, that’s just not true. The government stopped employing people in those jobs, but the need for the jobs didn’t disappear. I visited some of the forestry workers some months after they’d lost their government jobs, and they were quite happy. They told me that they were now earning about three times what they used to earn – on top of which, they were surprised to learn that they could do about 60 percent more than they used to! The same lesson applies to the other jobs I mentioned.

Some of the things that government was doing simply didn’t belong in the government. So we sold off telecommunications, airlines, irrigation schemes, computing services, government printing offices, insurance companies, banks, securities, mortgages, railways, bus services, hotels, shipping lines, agricultural advisory services, etc. In the main, when we sold those things off, their productivity went up and the cost of their services went down, translating into major gains for the economy. Furthermore, we decided that other agencies should be run as profit-making and tax-paying enterprises by government. For instance, the air traffic control system was made into a stand-alone company, given instructions that it had to make an acceptable rate of return and pay taxes, and told that it couldn’t get any investment capital from its owner (the government). We did that with about 35 agencies. Together, these used to cost us about one billion dollars per year; now they produced about one billion dollars per year in revenues and taxes.

We achieved an overall reduction of 66 percent in the size of government, measured by the number of employees. The government’s share of GDP dropped from 44 to 27 percent. We were now running surpluses, and we established a policy never to leave dollars on the table: We knew that if we didn’t get rid of this money, some clown would spend it. So we used most of the surplus to pay off debt, and debt went from 63 percent down to 17 percent of GDP. We used the remainder of the surplus each year for tax relief. We reduced income tax rates by half and eliminated incidental taxes. As a result of these policies, revenue increased by 20 percent. Yes, Ronald Reagan was right: lower tax rates do produce more revenue. [...]

New Zealand had an education system that was failing as well. It was failing about 30 percent of its children – especially those in lower socio-economic areas. We had put more and more money into education for 20 years, and achieved worse and worse results.

It cost us twice as much to get a poorer result than we did 20 years previously with much less money. So we decided to rethink what we were doing here as well. The first thing we did was to identify where the dollars were going that we were pouring into education. We hired international consultants (because we didn’t trust our own departments to do it), and they reported that for every dollar we were spending on education, 70 cents was being swallowed up by administration. Once we heard this, we immediately eliminated all of the Boards of Education in the country. Every single school came under the control of a board of trustees elected by the parents of the children at that school, and by nobody else. We gave schools a block of money based on the number of students that went to them, with no strings attached. At the same time, we told the parents that they had an absolute right to choose where their children would go to school. It is absolutely obnoxious to me that anybody would tell parents that they must send their children to a bad school. We converted 4,500 schools to this new system all on the same day.

But we went even further: We made it possible for privately owned schools to be funded in exactly the same way as publicly owned schools, giving parents the ability to spend their education dollars wherever they chose. Again, everybody predicted that there would be a major exodus of students from the public to the private schools, because the private schools showed an academic advantage of 14 to 15 percent. It didn’t happen, however, because the differential between schools disappeared in about 18-24 months. Why? Because all of a sudden teachers realized that if they lost their students, they would lose their funding; and if they lost their funding, they would lose their jobs. Eighty-five percent of our students went to public schools at the beginning of this process. That fell to only about 84 percent over the first year or so of our reforms. But three years later, 87 percent of the students were going to public schools. More importantly, we moved from being about 14 or 15 percent below our international peers to being about 14 or 15 percent above our international peers in terms of educational attainment.


It is because Mr. Bush is leading this type of transformation and because John Kerry is such a reactionary as regards this revolution that the 2004 election is uniquely significant, perhaps the most important in our history.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 19, 2004 10:04 AM
Comments

I haven't noticed government headcount dropping.

Posted by: mike earl at April 19, 2004 11:47 AM

Then you haven't been reading carefully--decivilservicification is one of his real triumphs.

http://www.brothersjudd.com/blog/archives/008925.html

Posted by: oj at April 19, 2004 11:52 AM

Size of govt and the increased (non-military) spending are the 2 major disatisfactions with Bush. Given the fierce Dem opposition, and lack of spending control of most GOPers it isn't surprising Bush hasn't gotten much done on this front.
The New Zealand results do sound impressive.

Posted by: AWW at April 19, 2004 11:53 AM

OJ,

This is a wonderful article, and we really should go and do likewise, but isn't the cognitive dissonance between this kind of thinking and your desire for a huge gas tax increase causing you at least some dizziness?

Posted by: Kirk Parker at April 19, 2004 12:57 PM

Imprimis is a free monthly newsletter, by the way:

http://www.hillsdale.edu/newimprimis/subscription.htm

Posted by: PapayaSF at April 19, 2004 3:37 PM
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