Wiping the Slate Clean

It is the nature of organizations to grow over time. They add people, they add rules & regulations. Some of this addition is a Good Thing. But clearly, it can become a Bad Thing. And what’s worse, if an organization has grown horribly off-course, there is often no practical way to reform it radically. One need simply look at failing cities caught in a seemingly perpetual cycle of decay. The worse they get, the fewer Good People want to stay to Make It Better. And if they try, they have to fight an enormous existing machine and set of entrenched interests.

Is there a way to wipe the slate clean? In the private sector, companies that go too far off course are put out of business. But the same is not nearly as true for sections WITHIN a company, nor is it true for nonprofits, and it is especially untrue for governments.

I think many of us fantasize about wiping the slate clean, but doing so is a traumatic change that can have vast unintended consequences. And even if the change could be survived – what assurances do we have that the New Order is any better than the Old Regime?

Wiping the slate clean should not be done lightly. But I think there should be a way to do so. I ask your input on the thought experiment as to HOW to do so.

Possible Implementation (only a sketch mind you) for Municipal Government:

  • At any time a confidence vote could be called for by the people (someone would have to get at least X% of registered voters to sign a petition calling for such a referendum).
  • If at least Y% of the voters vote “no confidence” (or however it should be worded), then a Wipe The Slate Clean process begins…
  • Z delegates must are selected via a follow-on election. These delegates are essentially a constitutional convention tasked with creating a new charter for the municipality. Their focus is on creating the sets of incentives, checks, and balances – not on passing judgment on any particular old laws, statutes, regulations, etc.
  • The old and new charters are put before the voters and whichever wins the most votes becomes the official charter.
  • If the new charter is selected, then all the new positions will be up for grabs at the next election. Old politicians can run for the new positions – but all positions must get filled.
  • Once the new people are in office, they will have some period of time to review all old regulations, rules, traditions, etc. that fall under their purview. The newly elected leader has the right to THROW OUT anything they don’t like and keep whatever they do like. All of this must be done transparently to the public.

The above idea has the following merits in my mind:

  • It allows you to throw out the old system, but only if people re REALLY PISSED OFF and think the new system is better.
  • It focuses on changing incentives vs tasking the newly elected constitutional convention with the task of reviewing and debating ALL old regulations – that gets tasked to people specifically capable in THAT area.

There’s certainly tons wrong with my idea, but I look forward to the discussion :).

5 thoughts on “Wiping the Slate Clean

  1. I think I like this idea… but it doesn't solve what I think of as "the hairball problem."I'll give you an example:In Amherst, there's a law requiring you to register your dog every year (and pay a registration fee).It's a dumb law and I bet lots of people (especially farmers whose dogs have plenty of space to roam and never leave their property) don't bother.But you can't wipe the slate clean of this law, because there's a MA state law that REQUIRES towns to do dog registration.The really important issues have really big hairballs. Another, much more important example: towns can't reform their schools because of statewide union contracts and statewide (and sometimes federal) regulations.I think the big issue is the concentration of power away from the local towards the state/federal governments; I think there are natural checks and balances on the local governments that don't exist at higher levels.

  2. I agree completely. And my real inspiration behind this idea was (while I'm being dreamy :))1. Start with Municipalities. 2. If that experiment works, use the same system on State Governments. 3. If THAT experiment works, apply it to PORTIONS of the federal government (I think the idea of rewriting the whole constitution and reconsidering ALL federal law, regs, rules, ect. would be a Very Bad Idea for stability).

  3. I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.— Thomas Jefferson, 1816I wrote a piece a while back on the nature of injustice. My argument was that the nature of injustice was when the laws governing a people did not match their needs or desires, that this could occur when a smaller class of rulers held different interests than their subjects, in situations of invasion, or simply when institutions are not adaptive to every changing environments and subsequently changing values and desires. I don't know how much I would hold to that idea now, but I do think fear of change, and fear of blame, and the subsequent inability for civil servants to innovate is a pretty major problem in our society.

  4. Wiping the slate clean, when applied to municipal government is a much bigger problem than elected officials. I would posit that in government, the *real* bureaucracy are not the politicians – who can be wiped clean at a given election – but the folks who work for government – ie. the staffers. They are the folks who keep our government running – for good and for bad. If you talk of wiping the slate clean, you must talk of wiping *all* of government clean. And that my friend is a pretty painful process. Just witness Iraq – where indeed they have wiped the slate clean.

  5. I hadn't thought about the municipal employees at all – EXCELLENT POINT!My counter argument (which I am not sure covers ALL the ground, but what the heck…):* The reform changing the INCENTIVES, which should, over time, change behavior. We would need to ensure that the incentives of ALL employees, not just elected officials, would be up-for-change in the "constitutional convention."* Changing elected officials offers the opportunity to change APPOINTED positions.* Maybe there should be a provision that allows newly elected leaders the OPTION to replace any employees? Although how union contracts would interact with such an idea seems… explosive!

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