State Capacity

Redesigning a single street in San Francisco took almost 20 years.

The Issue

We have set up California’s government to fail by giving the people serving in it too few resources and too little authority.

This is the result of pressures from the right and the left.

On the right, libertarians made government the enemy. This national movement had deep roots in California, via Ronald Reagan’s governorship and the Prop 13 tax revolt.

While the governing environment has gotten increasingly complex — more people, more interest groups, bigger budgets — we have cut budgets for staff and legislators.

We have also locked more and more of the budget into set-asides and formulas. As a result, our elected officials don’t have flexibility to address the changing needs of a dynamic state.

On the left, progressives introduced layers of procedure to avoid bad things — like urban renewal — from happening again. By doing so, they also made it nearly impossible for good things to happen.

As a result, we can’t build — e.g., new housing, green energy facilities, transit lines. There are so many different veto points that projects are delayed endlessly.

Our Ideas

We need to increase the capacity of our institutions by paying more competitively, starting with legislators and staffers. Because of cultural skepticism toward government, we’ll have to build support for these changes with the public.

Similarly we must create more flexibility in hiring and retention of top talent in state agencies and departments so they can effectively implement policy directives.

We also need to reevaluate how we build in the real world. When we give veto power to everyone — via well-intentioned laws like CEQA — little progress can be made.

We have been in a vicious cycle with the California government over the last fifty years. We create an environment that makes success nearly impossible, then punish our elected officials for not succeeding by increasing the difficulty of the environment. We need to reverse the polarity of this trend to get a virtuous cycle and an effective government.