How Shasta County Can Deliver on the Promise of Government

Our Founding Fathers were quite clear in their hopes for government. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote that the people should “organiz[e] its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” John Adams made a similar point months earlier: “Upon this point all speculative politicians will agree, that the happiness of society is the end of government.”

Two hundred years after those words were penned, 80% of Americans trusted the government to do what was right to increase their happiness. 

But something has happened over the last 60 years. Today, only 20% trust the government to do what is right. The reasons are many but one of the most profound is that we feel we are paying more and more to the government and getting less and less in return. 

Shasta County is no exception. In the last 5 years, the county budget has increased from $500M to $660M. And yet, we have experienced one of the largest increases in homelessness in the last 15 years. Redding’s violent crime rate is just shy of San Francisco’s. Our roads rank 7th worst in the state. Our suicide rate is the highest and our rate of childhood trauma is 2.5 times the state average. 

We’re spending more and getting less. Why?

Ronald Reagan famously said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”

Unfortunately, Reagan’s words have often been right as government gets involved and problems expand. But it doesn’t have to be this way. 

The problem with government is that the incentives are mixed up. In business, owners and employees make money when their customers get what they want: a quality product or service. In government, departments get money even if the people don’t get a benefit. In fact, their failures may earn them more money because their failures lead to greater needs.

If we want our county government to be effective at solving problems – which we should because it is the largest institution in the community focused on community problems – then we need to change the incentive structure. Today, politicians get credit for passing policies and spending money, even if those policies and dollars don’t result in a benefit for the community. We need to hold government accountable to deliver results.

We can do this by deciding, as a county, on 5-10 goals that we publish on the county website. In addition, each department could identify measures of success to track its benefit to the community and report on those measures at Board meetings every 1-2 months. They would then develop plans for achieving those goals that the public can read and react to.

If county supervisors knew the public would hold them accountable to achieve those goals, they would hold the county CEO and department heads accountable to deliver results – and those leaders would hold their managers accountable. 

Imagine running a business without checking to see if you’re making money. You’d be out of business in no time. Yet, we run our government without checking to see what benefit we’re producing from the hundreds of millions of dollars we’re spending.

It’s time we make lasting progress on the challenges of homelessness, crime, mental illness, addiction, and potholes. It’s time we deliver on the promise of government envisioned by our Founding Fathers by making ourselves accountable to deliver results to the community – even if no one will require us to do so.