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Sign it, then mind it.

Ross Perot recently asked me for $15. Against my better judgment, I'm sending him a check. I did not vote for Perot. I hope he never becomes president. Even so, he earned my contribution based on a single remark midway through the second presidential debate. "Please understand," he said, "there are great plans lying all over Washington that nobody ever properly executes."

If the Clinton administration takes one lesson from Ross Perot, that should be it. It's no secret that the new president has more programs than Microsoft. Many are smart. Some are desperately needed. But most will surely follow the same failed path as the ones they are intended to replace--unless the Clinton administration pays heed to more than just turning good ideas into laws. Just as important is focusing equal attention on the nuts and bolts of how to make the plans work on the ground level.

Let's face it, policy implementation is boring. It's complex, and it makes terrible TV. But it's also the missing gene of American politics. Few people focus on it; even fewer care. But getting it fight is especially relevant now as Washington gears up to push Clinton's brash new agenda. "All the pious announcements, all the laws that are passed will mean nothing," explains Richard Nathan, director of the Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York at Albany, "unless there is a commitment to carrying them out. Our failure to do this has been the endemic problem of American government."

And what exactly does that mean? It's no secret that countless plans, whether under Johnson or Reagan, in areas from crime to welfare, have failed to live up to their promise. Little matter that the best policy minds designed them, that ambitious new laws were passed, that billions were funneled to federal agencies and the states. Inevitably, it seems, our social ills have become worse. And when that happens, it's back to the drawing board to try a newer, better plan.

The assumption here is that the solutions--the laws themselves--are flawed. And in some cases that surely is part of the problem. But lawmakers and policy designers rarely stop to consider whether, for example, police officials charged with implementing the latest federal plan for community policing know how to train officers for the task, or whether welfare caseworkers actually sanction welfare recipients who fail to take job training classes, as the latest welfare law requires. In short, when the laws are written, is there enough thought given to how to implement the new policies?

In a word, no. Why not? Presidents and congressmen earn their stripes by passing legislation, not by making sure it works. To the constituents back home, a new law sends a signal that their man in Washington is on the ball, doing something --anything--to solve a problem. To the media, slavishly covering the signing of a new bill--as they did in broadcasting images of President Reagan's White House signing of the the 1982 Garn-St. Germain Act, which helped cause the savings and loan disaster--is easy. Schlepping out to the hustings, on the other hand, to decipher the impact of the law on the banking industry, wasn't. About the only ones who seem to pay any attention at all to the implementation gap are professor-filled, blueribbon panels. (Foremost among them in recent years have been the 1990 Volker Commission on Public Service, the 1992 National Commission on State and Local Public Service, and a Brookings Institution team that is expected to release its review this summer.) Many have gone to great pains to illustrate that even the best laws will fail when implementation is ignored. Such warnings, however, seem to fall on deaf ears.

Of course, all politicians want their laws to succeed, but there is little incentive while designing new legislation to worry about the fine points of how it will be carried out. Unfortunately, it may take the failure of Clinton's vaunted agenda to prove the point. That's a particularly unsavory notion these days, as policy flops in the nineties will be more costly than those of the past. Considering the need to slash the deficit, we simply can no longer afford to play loosy-goosy with social programs; every penny spent must be producing tangible results. Just as important, further failures will push public confidence to the brink: How many times can Washington spend billions on reforms and then have nothing to show for them before taxpayers abandon faith in government solutions altogether?

There is, however, an easier way than waiting for the bright new agenda to become a wasted one: looking back to the causes of failed laws. Two areas, crime and welfare--where fully debated, smartly designed policy ideas in recent years failed--make the case.

Disorganized crime

No issue was hotter in the 1968 election than crime. In the three years leading up to the election, the nation had been bled by riots in more than 100 cities. A 1968 Gallup poll revealed that most Americans believed lawlessness was America's number one domestic problem. After months of debate and with the input of special task forces comprised of the brightest stars in the field, Congress and the Johnson administration unveiled the 1968 Safe Streets Act. The cure to the crime problem would start with the creation of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), through which $300 million in grants would be doled out to police departments across the nation. In order to win the grants, however, localities had to promise to use the money to fund crime prevention programs that the think-tank task forces had endorsed, namely plans like community-based policing, drug treatment on demand, hiring more police officers, and school-based drug education. Sound familiar? If you've followed Clinton's $3 billion crime program, it should. Of course, Clinton's plan is not identical (he's also pushing tougher ideas like boot camps for juvenile offenders), but the overlap is significant.

The bad news for Clinton is that the Safe Streets Act and the LEAA were dismal failures. (The LEAA, after a controversial, sorry existence, was abolished in 1982.) The good news, however, is that the failure had almost nothing to do with the quality of the policies proposed. In fact, libraries full of studies since 1982 have concluded that such reforms can, and have, worked--which helps explain why they're back on the agenda.

Instead, the failure was largely a product of how the act was carried out. Under Safe Streets, local police departments would submit funding proposals to "state planning boards," which would modify them as they saw fit and pass them along to the Washington-based LEAA for approval. If the plans contained the types of programs Congress and the administration had endorsed, the money would be released to the state boards, which would then dole it out to the local police units.

Of course, fighting crime, as the Safe Streets Act properly recognized, should intimately involve--and ultimately be controlled by--local governments, and not micromanaged from Washington. But Safe Streets' LEAA made a crucial blunder. It essentially threw the money at the states and the state planning boards. It cared only about who got what amount of money. When it came to considering whether the money was being used properly, and more importantly, what results the funding was producing, it was essentially hands off.

And how did that play out in towns and cities across America (where few Washington bureaucrats care to look)? For one, the state planning boards--made up for the most part of academics who were sold on the reforms--invariably locked horus with local police officials, blue-collar types who were often set in their ways. To the local officials, many of whom were quite comfortable running their local fiefdoms, the pointy-headed planners were perceived as a threat to their autonomy. Massachusetts's state planning board, made up mostly of liberal Harvard types, not surprisingly found itself slugging it out with the street-wise Boston police. "Morale here is zero," one Massachusetts state planner told the press in the early seventies. "We have no friends, no political base, no power." One southern state planner at the time said, "The police chiefs in this state come out of the Salem witch hunt. If a police chief doesn't want a training program, you can't do anything about it."

It wasn't long before the agenda began to unravel. While some local departments never applied for funds, others did and then used the money as they saw fit. In 1970, 37 percent of the LEAA funds had been used to pay for programs completely unrelated to crime. (The governor of Indiana, for example, dipped into the LEAA trough to buy himself an airplane.) And in 1971, it was later discovered that more than a dozen states had used LEAA funds for illegal purposes. "What had appeared to be a law officer's dream for badly needed help," stated a congressional report examining the LEAA in the mid-seventies, "was becoming merely a politician's dream for the biggest pork barrel of them all."

Even when the money did filter down to the local level, the new-fangled ideas were often resisted by local police officials wedded to their ways. Consider the Georgia sheriffs who, after a plan had been approved, refused to allow their local jails to be replaced by a multi-county prison slated as a model in providing the latest in rehabilitative programs. Why the stubbornness? To the sheriffs, local jails offered status, provided free labor when needed, and in many cases allowed them to put their wives on the county payrolls to cook meals for the inmates.

In the end, the local police simply beat the planners to a pulp. They were better organized and more politically connected. Linked by vocal, visible, and well-funded groups such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the American Correctional Association, they rolled over the friendless and politically unsophisticated planning agencies.

And what was Washington doing during the meltdown? "Theft biggest concern was to get the money out in the field," explained one state planning official to the authors of U.S.v. Crime in the Streets, a late seventies study of the the failure of the Safe Streets Act. "It's as if the people there held an amoral attitude about program standards they just wanted to get the money out into the hands of the police." Federal myopia meant chaos ruled. Nevada's crime program, for example, failed to include an organized crime component. New York's had just one page detailing how it would deal with the state's drug problem (whereas Vermont's included 320 pages on the same problem). None of this seemed to matter to the LEAA, which approved the plans all the same.

Equally damaging was the fact that evaluation from the LEAA was virtually nonexistent. By the mid-seventies, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the General Accounting Office, and the White House had all concluded independently that the LEAA was in a fog. One 1976 OMB report criticized the LEAA for paying for millions of dollars worth of "interesting but unnecessary equipment." In fact, it wasn't until four years after the LEAA was created that Congress made the embarrassing discovery that the agency had not a single employee charged with collecting information on the success of programs.

Given the sloppy implementation of this act, it's little wonder that by the early eighties Washington was no longer enamored of the new crime-fighting ideas. But a decade later, we've come full circle. There is no question that localities must be tightly involved in implementing a federally initiated crime agenda, but unless the Clinton team is aware of why the grand ideas flopped the last time around, history is destined to repeat itself.

Class act

Of course, the bungling of crime reform may well be the exception. Safe Streets' grand ideas, after all, were being imposed on local governments from faraway Washington--a situation sure to inspire distrust no matter how well the regulations were implemented. Perhaps the bulk of the blame in this case really lies with local governments, which were reluctant to accept the fashionable new programs in the first place.

The best way to test that objection is to examine a failed federal reform that was not handed down but was instead inspired by the states themselves--welfare reform.

Clinton's tough campaign rhetoric in this area, such as his promise to "scrap the current welfare system," played no small part in putting him in the White House. While he embraced the foundation of current federal law--forcing welfare recipients to enroll in job training programs---he went a step further, offering a plan that essentially would cancel benefits for those who fail to find a job after two years on assistance. That's no minor suggestion, and one that would require a reprogramming of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

Clinton's no-nonsense talk is justified. Public polls show that Americans are not happy with the welfare system, and plenty of policy experts agree. Nearly 5 million families receive AFDC benefits and the average aid recipient is on the rolls for more than six years. The most recent reform, the 1988 Family Support Act, sought to fix that. The sweeping measure, which came after nearly a decade of debate, turned the philosophy behind welfare inside out. Instead of simply providing recipients with money, the law demanded that those receiving aid must in return prepare themselves for a job through training courses, enrolling in college, or the like.

To make the new idea work, the 1988 law, in creating a program known as JOBS, turned much of the implementation responsibility over to the states. The federal government agreed to release more than $3.3 billion over five years in matching funds to state welfare agencies, which would be charged with creating specific programs to provide job counseling and training. The beauty of the 1988 act was that, unlike Safe Streets, many states, such as Arkansas and Massachusetts, had already experimented with so-called "welfare-to-work programs," giving Congress the confidence that it wouldn't be throwing money at a completely untested idea which the states didn't want.

The first round of evaluations of the act are just now filtering in, and while they don't point to a disaster on the scale of Safe Streets, about the brightest face that can be put on it is "mildly successful." In California, for example, welfare recipients who went through a job training program now earn an average of $1,900 a year. Those who did not now earn an average of $1,600. Nationwide, the number of people on welfare in the past four years has gone sharply up--not down. "The hope that states would use JOBS to signal a change in the mission of the welfare system has not been realized," was the conclusion of the largest, and thus far only, in-depth study of the act, Implementing JOBS, a review of the welfare-towork programs in 10 states by Jan Hagan and Irene Lurie of the Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany, N.Y. The pace of progress has in part prompted Clinton and others to push the more radical reform agenda.

But before we leap into the next welfare overhaul, what exactly has gone wrong with the last one? While some critics of the act argue that the law itself is not tough enough (job training requirements, for example, can be fulfilled through taking self-esteem classes), the larger problem is that the act is "underrated and under-implemented, explains Richard Nathan, whose review of welfare implementation over the past three decades, Turning Promise into Performance, is scheduled for publication this spring,

And what does that mean on the front lines? For one, there hasn't been enough money to make it work--partly because the federal government's $3 billion outlay isn't adequate, but also because the states simply have been slow to collect it. (Remember, the federal seed money is not a direct giveaway. In order for each state to receive its share, it must put up matching funds.) Of the $1 billion available to the states in 1991, only $600 million was actually claimed. Of the 10 states studied by Hagan and Lurie, only one, Oregon, even came close to pulling down all the funds to which it was entitled. And often the poorest states, which need the money the most, put up the least--and thus pull down the least. Mississippi, for example, drew less than 15 percent of the federal funds to which it was entitled.

In some cases, states facing serious fiscal problems simply haven't been able to make the investment. But in others, it's also a matter of leadership-or lack of it. In fact, in none of the 10 states studied by Hagan and Lurie did welfare agencies make any "organizational changes" in the administration of their programs to incorporate the new federal mandates. Case-workers, for example, were rarely trained for the dramatic shift from distributors of checks to counselors. Instead, in places like Tennessee, county welfare directors were taught how to market the JOBS program, but caseworkers were never trained for the tougher job of educating welfare recipients about where to get the actual job training and education.

In some cases, the failure of leadership is apparent not so much in what state officials do but in what they neglect. Some governors, such as Maryland's William Donald Schaefer and Massachusetts's Mike Dukakis in the eighties, sparked their welfare-to-work programs by holding press conferences to emphasize positive results, pushing for ad campaigns and the like. Others, such as Texas's Bill Clements in the late eighties, sat on their hands. While part of the resistance to push JOBS program in some states may have been due to a lack of funds, some of it was more intentional. "Don't underestimate the politics of it all," said one Texas welfare official, referring to the Clements administration. "They knew they could win political capital by keeping a safe distance from any program that smacked of welfare."

But as with Safe Streets, the implementation vacuum starts in Washington and filters down to the local level. National leadership has made little effort to

inspire local welfare agencies to make the new plans work, allowing them to fall back on old ways. In Michigan, says Nathan, "Social workers simply did not believe in the idea of the program. That's what implementation is about, changing the mindset of the people, not just at the top but at the local level." Consider the attitude of welfare bureaucracy in New Jersey. Crucial to the success of the 1988 act, policy planners say, is sanctioning welfare recipients who refuse to take job training courses by withholding part of their welfare checks. But, explains Allan Zalkind, a top welfare administrator in Newark, which has one of the largest welfare populations in the nation, "We oppose the mandatory aspect of the act. We don't like to sanction anyone unless we feel it is absolutely necessary. Our job is not to hold the gun to someone's head."

One fallout from the lack of wallet and will has been that JOBS programs in most every state have been limited to helping only those who volunteer to get job training--in other words, those recipients who actively want to get off welfare. (In some states, like Minnesota, it is official policy to serve only those who voluntarily ask for job training.) That's fine for the volunteers, but it doesn't help much in ultimately lowering the number of people receiving benefits. Those who volunteer for assistance in finding a job are often the most ambitious who, with or without JOBS, would have left the dole after a relatively short period. It's the hard-core cases who are at the heart of America's welfare problem, and JOBS has offered little help in moving them off welfare. "Serving mostly volunteers means we are not reaching into the caseload," explains Judith Geuran, president of Manpower Development Research Corporation, a not-for-profit group that specializes in welfare reform. "The law has potential, but we are a long way from making it work."

The promise land

Making the Family Assistance Act or any law work should be just as high a priority as passing it--for Congress, the White House, and especially the federal agencies. Fortunately, there are road maps for this kind of success, especially on the state level. One is Massachusetts's Employment and Training welfare-to-work program. Here Chet Atkins, who headed the state's welfare agency in the eighties, not only played a hands-on role in creating the policy, but once it was designed, took his show out to the field, working with welfare workers across the state to ensure that the plan was accepted and understood. Atkins realized that before he could change the behavior of those receiving aid, he had to change the attitude of those handing it out.

Recognizing the significance of this missing link in American policy may well be the toughest step. Longtime friend of Bill and Hillary, Mation Wright Edelman, sure to be on the "A list" of White House guests, would do well on one of her visits to leave a copy of a speech she gave six years ago at the Kennedy School of Government's commencement ceremonies. There she spoke of the need for change--but not the kind of policy change most closely associated with Clinton's campaign. "Pay attention," she urged the new graduates, "to the nitty gritty steps of implementation. Passing a law or drafting a regulation is the easiest part of the change process. Making it work, informing the public ... and getting and training sensitive and skilled personnel to administer it is just as crucial."
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Title Annotation:implementing laws are as important as formulating and passing them
Author:Georges, Christopher
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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