Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

Good government: jurisdictional simplifications

on 1998 May 15

A good government can be identified by two words: “efficient democracy.” To this end, there are three main points in my program for correcting the government:

  • simplify jurisdictions, taxes, and other procedures
  • don’t institutionalize; retire programs and departments when their function is no longer needed
  • put the public in charge through a bubble-up grassroots leadership process, which builds an ethical vision of the vast majority


The government became complicated in the first place because it is politically easier to add a new program than to extend and generalize an existing program. This is especially true when one government wants to do something similar to what another government is doing, so the same department crops up at many levels of government, and multiple branches of the same government start up similar programs. The same happens with procedures such as taxes: exceptions are added on top of exceptions, instead of adjusting the basic rates or structure of the system.

Problems with complexity

The result of all this is (1) duplication of effort and lack of coordination, (2) lack of understanding of whose jurisdiction a particular issue falls into, and (3) inability to change anything structural because of too many dependencies controlling each program.

Taking these one at a time: #1, duplication of effort is sometimes wanted because we are more likely to come up with a good solution if more people are working on it. For example, a difficult problem like nuclear waste cleanup should probably be studied separately by different federal departments, because each department has their own spin on the issue and who knows – maybe the Fish and Wildlife people will come up with something that the Pentagon people missed. In this case spending the extra money for duplication may be a good idea. However for local mundane issues like income support and road building, duplication is a huge inefficiency.

Not only is it inefficient, if it is uncoordinated between the different programs, two agencies could be working at cross purposes, undoing each others efforts, and/or leaving service gaps between slightly different populations served.

This leads into #2 – lack of understanding of whose jurisdiction a particular issue falls into. For the public trying to obtain services, this translates into being bounced around to all different agencies and finding no one who will admit to being responsible. Within government if there are too many agencies with similar purposes, then no one may take responsibility for certain things. But most importantly, the multiplicity is confusing for citizens. It may be viewed as sufficient that government workers know their job and how their program relates to other parts of government, but it is also vitally important that regular people also understand the structure of our government. A democracy rests on the ability of the public to inspect the operation of government and change it as necessary to follow the public will. But if agencies are hiding in complications, this restricts the ability of the people to lead.

And this leads into #3 – inability to change because of too many dependencies. Who would guess, for example, that if a city wanted to build bicycle and transit friendly corridors, that a dozen federal state and local agencies would have to coordinate to make this happen? It seems so simple to change the way things are built to accommodate a variety of needs, and it should be simple, but it is not. The local authority over bike lanes (whoever that is!) has no say in the engineering standards by which roads are built. The agency responsible for roads and the one responsible for busses may not even exist at the same level of government, and have different sources of funding. Many things like this that would seem like the obvious thing to do are mired in complexity or outright illegal, due to the basic complexity in government structure.

So what’s to simplify? Here’s a list.

Simplicity #1: Coordinate jurisdictional boundaries and create a sense of place within each district

Currently each person in the US lives in dozens of different districts – their water district probably isn’t the same as the school district or the legislative or census or transit or health districts. Federal districts even ignore state and county lines.

There are reasons each districting process ended up with a different map, some of which should be preserved: for example it would not be productive to force wildlife or watershed districts onto the same map as legislative districts because there are natural features that led to the designation of the watershed that are unique to that activity. However, for most purposes we can all use the same map.

This would not only make administration of each program feel easier, it would reduce the cost. There is a great deal of time spent deciding on, training workers about, and discussing jurisdictional boundaries, which is not productive time.

The need for coordinated districts goes far beyond simple efficiency: neighborhoods can be named and people there can feel a sense of place (politically, culturally, etc.). You can say “I live in Silver Hills” and it would mean something. Each neighborhood would have one elementary school and a park in the middle, and government services would be co-located in the center. The neighborhood would have one set of representatives to the wider government, and it would be served and counted consistently for all purposes. Meaningful information about the place would be built up (for example, you could compare the effect of zoning policies on crime, which would not be possible if the zoning and police districts were not the same). People would know one another and this would help build a sense of community and safety.

If government led, businesses and other institutions would find it easier to share the system rather than remapping.

Simplicity #2: Fit every function into one executive department

Keep the types of structures to a minimum. For example, we don’t need “agencies” which are different than “action teams” which are different than “bureaus”, etc. Move legislative bureaucracy into the executive branch. An entire government should be presentable in clean boxes on one sheet of paper. It can fit on a tree of three levels: President (or governor or mayor), Departments, and Agencies (a way of dividing up departments). Agencies should all have easily understood non-overlapping responsibilities.

Some departments have clear, accepted goals. Consider the defense department. They are charged mainly with defense and are encouraged to use any means necessary to that end. Of course a lot about that particular department is controversial, particularly whether using military force should be the primary means of defense. Regardless of whether they are doing a good job of it or not, it seems agreeable that “defense” is a good name for a department and this is something we need to do.

But deep restructuring is needed in some areas that have fundamentally mis-stated responsibilities. For example, the state “highway” department is a poor choice because highways are a tool, not a basic need. “Transportation and access” would be a better choice, and this department would get all types of transportation and would be able to make sensible choices balancing different kinds of transportation with the ultimate goal of making sure people have access to jobs and services. By having a state “highway” department different from a municipal “transit” department, this sets up a needless conflict between the two. The functions of road building, operating busses, and all other transportation should be coordinated by the same agency.

Other areas that are needlessly split up across many agencies are education, environmental controls, and land use.

Simplicity #3: Align departments vertically across levels

For example, there is a federal dept of education, so there should be a parallel state and local dept of education, rather than making education a branch of human services (which might also go under two other federal departments).

Simplicity #4: Focus control at one level for each department

(see regnism.doc) Higher levels would be coordinating and informational levels, and lower levels would be implementation and review levels, but only one would be the true jurisdictional level.

Simplicity #5: Align accounting, review, and other administrative processes across all departments

There should be one general way to file a complaint to any agency. Agencies should not be allowed to waste time continually reinventing ways to get their work done.

By the way, they should also not be allowed to do planning or in any way try to take over leadership from the public where it belongs. The planning function of all agencies should be removed and put into a public planning institution as described below. Executive agencies should simply do what they are charged with, in an open and accountable way. When that is done, they should stop working like good bureaucrats.

Simplicity #6: Don’t stand for blackmail-style control from a higher level of government

The largest example of this is the way the federal government controls states by making road funding contingent on everything from education standards to free trade. A local department in charge of education standards should go ahead and exercise its rightful authority (to fail to do this is a breach of public control) even if it results in not getting highway funding. If highway funding is actually withheld, then other consequences should naturally follow that keep the control in the right department. The highway department would have to charge high tolls to make up for lost revenue, and the total state income may be less than otherwise, but the result is still better because (1) democracy is maintained by keeping control in the right level in the right department, and (2) outside help should not be the basis of the economy in the first place, as explained above (see village economics).

Taxes and deinstitutionalization

After simplification, the second broad area of reform I propose is deinstitutionalization. Any government agency should be charged by the legislature with the responsibility to do something specific (and no more) for a specific period of time (and no longer). It is a tendency for people working for government to want to extend their program and make work for themselves, which tends to put too many details in the hands of government and moves it away from serving people.

Government should control things only in a large, general way (which it fails to do adequately now). Micromanagement is inconsistent with a society based on personal freedom. Therefore we need a system to ensure that funding runs out and programs are stopped rather than have it keep trickling in.

My solution simplifies taxing and eliminates debt-spending while keeping government in check.

Basically, when a legislature approves a program or any change that requires money, it charges an agency with executing the program, and it simultaneously directs the revenue agency to collect a certain volume of taxes for that program. Currently, we decide how much to collect in taxes and then separately decide how much to spend. Obviously the tendency is to spend more than we have, piling up debt.

The spending bill would stipulate the agency in charge, the action to be done, the time period, the amount of taxes to apply to it per year, and the tax sources. It could specify sales, income, or property taxes, for example. Voting for a bill is voting for raising taxes for the program it creates.

The tax rate that actually results from all the spending laws is calculated annually based on the total amount needed. Errors in estimation would be made up the following year. A local tax agency could collect all taxes and forward part of the revenue to the state and federal governments.

Most programs should be funded for a period of several years – as long as the legislators are sure it will be needed. Agencies that perform basic government operational functions could be funded for 20 years, and the legislature would never have to discuss it for another 20 years. Most programs would be shorter, but should be funded for as long as it would take to fulfil their mission (it is highly inefficient to stop then restart a program). Upon their expiration date, if the legislature has not extended it, a program simply stops and the revenue is no longer collected for it, causing an automatic reduction in taxes. In other words, tax increases require a vote; tax decreases are automatic.

Putting the public back in charge

The final area of fixing the government is in putting the public back in charge. In the current system, few people are involved in any way with government, but corporations are largely involved. The reasons for non-participation are (1) the system is too complex for most people to understand how to get involved, (2) people are not personally invited to get involved – it is easier for government if the people stay home, and (3) people are not taught in schools the importance of involvement for the future of democracy. Consequently it takes an unusually aggressive and committed person to make their voice heard in the public process. The rest of us are not consulted.

My philosophy behind public involvement is not just to make it “allowed” or “accessible,” but to actually make public involvement required. Of course each person would not be required to do anything in a free society, but government would only be allowed to pursue policies that originated from a vast majority of the people. Leaders should not be allowed to think up and propose solutions or future directions.

To this end, I propose four branches of government, which are conceptually laid out as follows:


Leadership – Legislative – Executive/police – Judicial


The leadership branch is the new one, with powers drawn from the legislative and executive branches. The ordering of the four branches is important because on the left, the leadership branch is concerned with goals and general plans and visions, while on the right the judicial is concerned with the nitty gritty particulars of conflicts on a case-by-case basis. In between, the legislative branch turns the general goals of the leadership branch into policies and funding orders, and the executive branch “does everything.”

The leadership branch only takes control in emergency situations, and in everyday life its job is only to distill the public goals and vision and write plans. The branch is not divided into departments because the plans are written to cover all areas in the same document. To arrive at what the public wants, people attend neighborhood meetings in their local district – which requires the coordinated districting system described above – and discuss needs and priorities. These are written and sent to the next higher level, e.g. a town or county where they are combined and written into regional goals and vision statements. They also elect a person to represent the neighborhood, who goes to the next higher level. The top-level officials of the leadership branch are elected through this multi-level system of peers; they are not elected by the people directly.

The job of the legislative branch is narrowed from its free-for-all structure of today to one that is required to follow the plans written by the leadership branch. They bring the broad goals together with legal and other specific expertise, and financial responsibility, to craft laws that meet the goals.

The executive branch is also vastly curtailed from its largely un-checked role of today. The president/governor/mayor must carry out the laws and do nothing else. While it is charged with doing the work of government, it is placed conceptually lower in power than the other branches, because it is made up of un-elected workers and has no say in what should be done.

The “checks and balances” concept is extended to apply to the leadership branch. Checks and balances can also be viewed in terms of “incentives” (making sure the branch will do its role) and “limits” (making sure the branch will not do more than its role). The leadership branch has the incentive to lead because people want to control their own society. Its limits are that it is funded by the legislature and that is has no law-making power. If it makes unrealistic or unfair goals, the legislature can fail to respond. The ability of officials to become corrupt and fail to represent the people is curtailed by the fact that they are elected by peers whom they personally know (instead of a media campaign) and they can be replaced immediately by those same peers – not having to wait until an election day.

The legislative branch’s limits are that it may not pass laws that do not correspond with the wishes of the leadership branch, and any such laws can be challenged by the judiciary. Finally, the executive branch in that is must carry out legislation, and can be challenged by the judiciary for not doing so.

As with any possible design for democracy, the ultimate incentive is the will to be a self-led society.

And a final note about the limit of the power of government: Today many people who favor private control of the economy in the name of freedom are pushing to reduce government regulatory power – which is having the result of concentrating power in larger corporations and making it even less accessible to regular people. To keep all people in charge, we need to control our private lives without interference (insofar as it is private and does not affect others), and at the same time, control our own public society together as a team. Government is our way of exercising freedom together; it should only encompass public interactions and not attempt to control private lives. A distinction between public and private business should be drawn to help keep people in charge, as is described below.

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