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New Year's Resolutions for Zombie Governments (Opinion)

National Library of Medicine

January 4, 2010 By

Physicians and clergy are fond of saying that if there's a pulse, there's hope. As the new year begins, many public agencies are rightfully worried about their vital signs after what's been a punishing and traumatic season of fiscal and social disruption.

Some have relied on federal stimulus for life support and the promise of resuscitation until a recovery takes hold. Others see the problem in bleaker terms, suggesting that nothing short of resurrection is needed.

Author, columnist and progressive political operative David Sirota concluded that many of our institutions don't need life support, but a decent burial. That's not going to happen. In popular culture, post-collapse economics and politics the undead are too big to die.

Sirota noted how easily the phrase "zombie banks" entered the cultural lexicon to explain the unfathomable: "From a balance-sheet perspective, many of these firms were dead. But they were quickly reanimated as zombie banks with trillions of taxpayer dollars."

And it spread from there -- "On Wall Street, we have zombie executives." At the White House, zombie advisers ... "now sit in high government office letting out moans in support of the zombie banks." At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Sirota continued, "Decrepit zombie politicians with the funk of 40,000 years stalk Congress with the very zombie lobbyists that the election was said to disempower."

From a balance-sheet perspective, at least two of the largest states -- and a distressingly large number of cities and counties -- are exhibiting zombielike characteristics. There's plenty of aging funk in state legislatures, city councils and county commissions. In a time of financial scarcity and cuts, the great mysteries may revolve around zombie programs that lurch forward in light of higher priorities elsewhere.

Enter Bill Eggers and John O'Leary as modern day ghostbusters. As co-authors of If We Can Put a Man on the Moon ... Getting Big Things Done in Government, the public- sector clinicians offer a diagnosis of what's killing government's best laid plans and a prescription for exorcising public-sector zombies.

In a recent conversation, Eggers said government intentions can go awry by falling into seven common traps on the journey from inception to implementation. Avoiding three in particular seem like a good place to start:

1. Avoid design-free design, a political rendering meant for legislative passage by obfuscating the level of difficulty, making it of little use for implementation.

2. Avoid overconfidence, which obscures and discounts risk.

3. Avoid complacency, which fails to recognize that a program needs change.

The good news is that many public agencies have avoided the traps, Eggers said. "Governments that do this the best have institutions in place -- sunset commissions or performance review processes or something else -- that force that re-evaluation to occur [and] force you to look at wholly new ways of doing ... things."

Eggers also said he hopes the fiscal crisis will bring about change. "That's probably one good thing about the budget crunch: [It's] a forcing mechanism to force states and localities to re-evaluate. I just hope they do this hard work now as opposed to cutting heads and across-the-board budget cuts, because we are entering an age where I think a lot of our structures and systems are ... arcane and obsolete."

The lesson is: Zombies are analog, mindlessly undead. Digital demands a clearer, cleaner choice - on/off, alive/dead. And that's going to take a lot more thinking.


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