Many smaller, leaner governments more effective than giant bureaucracy

Posted 29 May 2020 at 9:40 pm


Several recent letters have called into question the various layers of government. It’s a subject worthy of discussion. Writer Capurso notes his home of Ashburn, VA is served only by the Loudoun County administration.

To clarify for readers – Ashburn is a census-designated population – otherwise known as an unincorporated area. It has no official boundaries or status. In New York, Ashburn would be classified as a hamlet.

Unincorporated areas are typically governed by some nearby town or village or in Ashburn’s case – the county. My former hometown was unincorporated and also governed by the county. At one point the county turned administration over to a nearby city and in doing so we got a mayor. Being unincorporated we had no say in the matter.

Finally in a fit of self determination, we incorporated into our own town with our own mayor. As a result, taxes did rise. The trade-off being the additional taxes remained within the community with direct oversight by the community and things improved.

Other writers mention the number of school districts the county has. To use one example, and if I’m not mistaken, the Lyndonville Central School District is one of several in the county. It has approximately 120 personnel of which roughly 40 are non-teaching, administrative or other support staff.

One writer mentions Bergen Co. NJ (where I once resided) but for this purpose I’ll point to another of my former residences: Los Angeles, CA.  L.A. has one superintendent guiding the enormous L.A. Unified School District. For every two teachers in the LAUSD there are three non-teachers.

Compare this with Lyndonville. In other words – in a large system under a single supervisor, 66 percent of school employees don’t teach. Under a leaner smaller system – 60 percent of them do.

There are a couple of points that come out of this contrast. The first being that organizations with fewer layers almost always mean the remaining layers – or levels – get thicker, bulkier and costlier.

Lyndonville’s school district is fiscally sound. On the other hand, LA’s single all-encompassing county-wide district, despite having a 9 percent drop in student population, saw a 22 percent increase in non-teaching administrative positions over the same time period all while on the brink of bankruptcy.

The second point might be that while a lot of people think government should be run like a business – it shouldn’t be – but if you think it should, you will recall that when any business gets to a certain size it (correctly) splits itself off into smaller departments, divisions, regional offices etc.

Splitting a company into a number of smaller, leaner, better-run organizations simply makes sense for a number of reasons. Thus, doing the opposite and combining a current number of smaller, leaner entities into one single, too-large, too-big-to-fail enterprise is the opposite of good business practice.

The argument being made by some appears to be in the name of efficiency. Efficiency and effectiveness are two separate things. One can be highly efficient, but if no one wants or cares about what you’re doing, you’re not effective. Effectiveness comes first.

To suggest doing away with a number of layers of government means one must have a great deal of faith that the level that remains – the one you have left – will not only be more effective, but also more efficient. This is, to put it mildly, a tremendous leap of faith. (I refer you to the LA Unified School District – singular, big, bloated and broke.)

Our ancestors who created the current system weren’t crazy or out of touch. Our small local governments were created for basically three reasons: to establish a level of local control; to respond more quickly to local priorities and finally to provide basic boot-camp level entry for any average individual who may have an interest in participatory government. Far better for the individual (and their constituents) to discover they have no real knack or taste for government while they are still on the town council than when they are in a state senate.

There are any number of areas where consolidation and cost-savings can take place and those should be discussed further. I would like to make one correction for Mr. Capurso. There was never a time when you had to go through a village or town government first before reaching someone at the county level. For the same reason you are free to contact your state or national senator without first going through the county.

Darren D. Wilson