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Since COVID, the Government Has Gotten Worse at Core Functions
Governments need to pay many of their workers more while also expecting more from them. And they must stop using COVID as an excuse for poor service quality.
Have you noticed that, when you try to use government services lately, they are often total shit? Government agencies are short-staffed, wait times for services are long, transit service is less frequent, the police have pulled back from doing their jobs — including even the issuance of traffic tickets, which is a reason the roads have gotten more dangerous — test scores are markedly down in schools, and some disruptive COVID protocols remain in place even as the president says the pandemic is “over.”
Of course, a lot of things don’t work as well as they did before COVID. But private sector entities have been forced to adapt as best they can — if customers don’t show up, they don’t generate income, and they go out of business. Public agencies have more of an option to coast, and often, they have: let employees continue collecting their paychecks, but don’t deliver services at anywhere close to the pre-COVID standard, while telling the public they shouldn’t expect better. This mentality is how, for example, the Social Security Administration closed its offices for in-person service for nearly two years after the pandemic started. A business that tried to do that would be out of business.
The atrophy of government service is obviously a huge problem in its own right. But it’s also a major political problem for Democrats, who are the party of the proposition that expansive government services are good and worth paying for. Poor service delivery undermines — for good reason — the willingness of the public to elect Democrats and to bear tax increases for the services those Democrats support.
Politicians in all parties need to be getting the government to work properly again. But Democrats especially need to do so, so their messages will make sense again.
The problem starts with staffing.
Working for the government is less attractive than it used to be
One major reason service quality is declining is that government agencies are having problems with staffing, both quantity and quality. In this environment of high inflation, public sector wage growth hasn’t kept up with the private sector. This has meant agencies have too many open positions, and it has meant those agencies are especially likely to lose their best employees, who have the best private-sector employment prospects.
Especially in blue states, government agencies typically have a mix of underpaid and overpaid workers. Benefits are generous, especially for full-career workers, and salaries can get pretty high over time. But entry-level pay is often low — starting salary for NYPD officers is just $42,500 — and the promise of job security and a generous pension isn’t necessarily attractive to young people who don’t know what they want to do for the next 20 years, especially in the current labor market environment. (You also can’t pay rent on an apartment today with the promise of an excellent pension in 30 years.)
In the private sector, companies can respond to labor market changes by bidding higher to get the workers they need. Airlines have reacted to the pilot shortage with astronomical pay increases, especially at lower-paying regional partner carriers — for example, Horizon Air, Alaska Airlines’ partner operating regional jets, just agreed to a new contract that raises pilots’ base pay by 74% and first officers’ by 85%.
But in the public sector, when employment terms become unattractive, positions just go unfilled, and service quality suffers. The last two and a half years’ job gains mean that the total number of workers in the private sector is 1.1 million above February 2020 levels. But the total number of government workers is still 600,000 lower than February 2020. And that’s manifesting as delays, disruptions, and reduced service quality.
In some areas the worker shortage is especially acute. Good luck if you need a city agency in New York to do anything for you right now. 20% of the 560 highest positions on the organizational chart at our Department of Transportation are vacant. After an apartment fire in the Bronx killed 17 people earlier this year, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development said it can’t do all the fire safety inspections it’s supposed to because a third of its safety inspector positions are vacant. 22% of positions at the Department of Buildings are vacant. As Rebecca Baird-Remba notes, all those vacancies at those two agencies are reducing the city’s capacity to do necessary tasks related to buildings — not just inspections but also financings of new affordable housing developments and the leasing of what apartments do get built.
The worker shortage is especially a problem where pandemic disruptions mean there is a backlog of service requests to work through — where agencies are not only understaffed but also have a higher-than-normal workload. Do you need a new passport? That’s going to take a while — an “expedited” passport now takes 4 to 6 weeks, and wait times were even longer a few months ago. It’s much worse if you’re a foreigner trying to get to the US — while consulates that were closed “due to COVID” have generally reopened, the backlogs of consular interviews that weren’t conducted due to pandemic-driven operational restrictions means you may need to wait years to seek a visa.
But the most galling deteriorations in service quality are in policing and education.
The police aren’t working, and some liberals aren’t sure they should anyway
The criminal justice system in New York is simply not delivering in the way it was before COVID. NYPD officers made 16% fewer arrests in the first half of 2022 than in the first half of 2019, even as most categories of major crime were sharply higher than they were pre-pandemic. Similarly, the issuance of traffic tickets is down, and traffic accident fatalities are up.
Why the system is working worse than it did a few years ago is a matter for debate. COVID created a reason for police to have less in-person contact with the public, and the political environment that followed the George Floyd protests created estrangement between the police and much of the public.
In New York, the unions that represent police officers blame low productivity on the state’s bail reform laws and the reluctance of progressive DAs to prosecute certain offenses — why arrest people who won’t be detained, charged or tried? NYPD critics argue that officers are essentially on an undeclared strike, refusing to do their jobs because they don’t like public policies or the ways certain politicians talk about them. The thing about both of these stories is that they allege a problem that arises in the public sector: whether public officials are imposing unwise policies or public employees are refusing to do their jobs, that’s a failure of government. Even the laws that make it inordinately difficult to discipline NYPD officers who won’t carry out the policies set out by public officials are themselves a creation of the legislature.
And in addition to the government not working like it’s supposed to, we keep hearing stories about why we shouldn’t expect it to work — either messages about the inherent inappropriateness of policing and incarceration, or messages about how the police can’t be expected to do their jobs under these conditions.
You may have seen a recent article in the New York Times about an incident in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. A mentally disturbed homeless man threw urine at a local woman, Jessica Chrustic, and beat her dog with a stick, causing injuries that led to the dog’s death. He hasn’t been arrested and he remains at large, a fact that concerns many residents of Park Slope.
But as you might expect in Park Slope, New York’s Portlandia, the desire for police involvement and an arrest is not universal. The Times reports:
When Ms. Chrustic posted about the attack, the first responses were mostly notes of condolence and support. People with dogs posted that they had seen the man in the same area where she was attacked — why weren’t the police arresting him? Donations poured in to offset her veterinary bills.
But gradually, other voices emerged. A vocal minority asked why Park Slope residents, mostly white, were calling for the police to take down a man who appeared to be homeless and emotionally disturbed. Others called the man a “monster,” a “predator” or a “psychopath.” As on other social media platforms, the most ardent voices made the most noise.
Martin Lofsnes, 52, a dancer and choreographer who moved out of the neighborhood in 2020, came across the conversation while trying to sell some stuff and was appalled by the vitriol directed at an impoverished man, and by what he called “this vigilante attitude.”
He urged people on the thread to put their emotions aside and consider “400 yrs of systematic racism which has prevented black people from building generational wealth through homeownership resulting in the extreme disparity we see today.” Arresting the man, he wrote, would solve none of that.
Importantly, it wasn’t just some idiots on the internet questioning whether a fatal assault of a pet was a matter for the police. Michael Whitesides, a spokesperson for local city councilwoman Shahana Hanif, told the Times: “We don’t believe that the N.Y.P.D. is the vehicle to bring safety to our community. When it comes to this individual, they’re clearly a present danger to others and most likely themselves, and figuring out how we can safely de-escalate that situation without putting anyone else in danger is complicated.”
This is, obviously, a very stupid perspective, and Hanif should be voted out of office. But soft-headed liberals — people like Whitesides who are so open-minded their brains fell out — aren’t even the key problem here.
As Harry Siegel, columnist for the New York Daily News, points out, the NYPD doesn’t need a neighbor’s’s permission to arrest the man who killed Chrustic’s dog. They don’t even need the local city council member’s. The NYPD has received plenty of evidence, reports and most importantly requests from their customers, their constituents, to protect the public from a person who is known to be a threat to public safety. Which is their job.
And yet, the NYPD hasn’t done that. Siegel and Matt Troutman have both reported about the NYPD’s lackadaisical investigation that hasn’t protected the public. For example, from Siegel:
A woman… spotted the dog killer by Underhill Playground at night, and called 911 after checking with Chrustic, who then called the 78[th Precinct]. A sergeant called her back about 30 minutes later to say they had no dispatch — and then that the call had been directed to the 72nd Precinct. Just send a car, Chrustic pleaded, but instead “the sergeant asked me to ask the woman if she’d go back into the park and get a better picture. That’s when I reached my threshold: ‘You want me to ask this woman, who’s gone above and beyond and is waiting for the police to arrive, to follow this man into the park? To what, have a photo shoot with him at 10:15 p.m.?’”
The police never came.
Of course, in this context, people are outraged about the quality of government services. Why wouldn’t they be?
Teachers unions’ changed their minds about whether teaching is important
COVID has led to a serious deterioration in the quality of K-12 education services. In-person school was suspended, often for months or more than a year, and COVID and policies related to COVID continue to make school schedules less reliable. Schools are understaffed compared to pre-pandemic — they too are affected by governments’ failure to keep pace with private sector pay. And whatever the combination of these reasons that is driving it, test scores are down a lot.
The errors in COVID-driven education policy, including the excessively long closures in many districts, have a lot of authors. Public polling throughout the pandemic showed a lot of acceptance of virtual school, and so the attendant deterioration in the quality of education services was not something simply imposed by unions. But the messaging about this from union leaders has often been offensively blasé, with union leaders rejecting the very notion that learning loss exists and saying that parents who wanted the return of in-person school just wanted “babysitters.”
And now that test scores are rolling in that show just how severe pandemic-driven learning loss has been, what do we hear? That public schools are too focused anyway on “college and career readiness” and on students’ ability to earn income in adulthood. No, seriously, that’s a take from Max Page, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers’ Association, the largest teachers’ union in that state, when he spoke to state lawmakers last month about his antipathy toward the state’s regime of achievement tests:
“The focus on income, on college and career readiness speaks to a system … tied to the capitalist class and its needs for profit. We, on the other hand, have as a core belief that the purpose of schools must be to nurture thinking, caring, active and committed adults, parents, community members, activists, citizens.”
Conveniently, unlike the question of whether students have learned reading and math, how “caring” students are can’t be evaluated quantitatively.
We’ve been paying for education services but children haven’t been receiving them. And one of the dominant messages we hear, especially from the left side of the spectrum, is that we just shouldn’t expect better results, that the tests are racist or whatever. How is that message supposed to be consistent with a political environment where people agree to pay more in taxes to finance public schools? It’s unsurprising that Democrats’ traditional poll advantage on education has been eroded in recent years.
What government must do about this
First of all, the president has declared that the COVID pandemic is “over.” He didn’t mean that nobody gets COVID anymore; he meant that normal operations and functions are back. Government agencies should make good on that. There is no excuse for COVID still being used as an excuse for reduced capacity or modified operations. In other words, offices of the Social Security Administration (recently reopened for in-person business after two years of closure) should not look like this, with service window 2 closed to create “social distancing” between windows 1 and 3:
Government is also going to need to raise employee compensation. You get what you pay for, and it’s a problem that inflation and the tight labor market have rendered public employee compensation increasingly uncompetitive with the private sector, especially for highly talented employees and for new hires.
But paying more will be a challenge, because widespread government budget surpluses are likely to turn to deficits as the economy weakens, and because public officials will need to get political buy-in for wage increases at a time when government service quality has noticeably deteriorated. Governments will only be able to afford to pay better where it counts if they pay smarter.
That means that:
Measures to increase employee compensation should be combined with reforms that make it easier to terminate employees who are underperforming or whose job functions aren’t needed.
Governments need to improve labor productivity. For example, this would be an excellent time for commuter rail agencies to drop labor-intensive ticket collection by conductors, and instead use proof-of-payment systems with random ticket inspections, as is typical in Europe. Eliminating positions that aren’t really needed will free up funds to pay for the employees that public agencies really do need to perform their functions.
Compensation should be re-weighted toward salary and away from health care benefits and pensions. Expensive defined-benefit pensions can be an extremely inefficient way to attract and retain workers — economist Maria Fitzpatrick examined a voluntary pension enhancement that Illinois offered to teachers in 1998 and found they were typically only willing to pay 20 cents for every dollar of enhanced pension value they could obtain. Workers prefer fungible cash salary — especially when labor markets are tight and the value of job security is reduced — so that’s the best place to focus government spending on labor.
But perhaps most of all, an attitude adjustment is needed. And it’s especially needed for Democrats, who are ordinarily the party of government services. Throwing your hands up and saying we shouldn’t expect children to learn math and shouldn’t expect the police to arrest people who attack dogs in Prospect Park completely undermines the Democratic Party’s case that government is worth paying for. It’s allowing Republicans to occupy ground that Democrats once held — Republicans are now the party that says you can expect the police to stop crimes, and expect the schools in your neighborhood to be consistently open and performing as they did pre-pandemic. If Democrats want people to pay for government, we need to convey expectations that it will work, express outrage about how poorly it is working right now, and focus on solutions that actually turn tax dollars into quality government services.
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And it shouldn’t be that hard to find the attacker: Part of why the more normal residents of Park Slope are so outraged about this situation is that the suspect is a regular, menacing fixture in the park. One piece of evidence the NYPD has collected, according to Siegel, is Go-Pro video of him waving his stick at a cyclist. Another woman reports the man violently attacked her dog back in 2019. Residents keep calling the NYPD to say report that they’ve seen the man in the park again, so would they please come and arrest him. And yet, the NYPD has not.