(by Matthew Knee)

I recently managed to get a few parking tickets dismissed. My parking permit fell off my mirror, resulting in about 4 tickets overnight. The parking office told me there was no rule against duplicate citations, and so did whomever processed my written appeal, which was rejected. When I went to me in-person appeal, however, I was told that there are in fact rules against repeated tickets within an 8 hour period for the same violation in the same place.

What relevance does this story have (Other than emphasizing that one should be persistent in appealing parking tickets)? It says a lot about bureaucracy and policy implementation. Bureaucrats are people doing jobs. They have a role to play and people to answer to, and like most office workers are generally concerned with clearing their in-boxes or to-do lists and avoiding the wrath of an angry boss, usually by complying with organizational goals or pressures and trying the succeed at whatever part of their job is being measured. In my case, the people who work in the parking office are there to collect payments and keep complainers from complicating things. The people who process written appeals are tasked with clearing huge numbers of mostly-frivolous parking appeals. The people who conduct in-person appeals are in the business of talking one-on-one with individuals who on average have better cases (because they haven’t given up yet), and occasionally granting mercy. All behaved as expected.

Bureaucratic behavior has implications for a variety of policies. The two I will discuss today are affirmative action in state university admissions, and K-12 teaching.

Several states have passed bans on affirmative action, but many public universities theoretically banned from using racial preferences continue to do so by other means, particularly by considering variables known to correlate with race, systems that combine racial signals with subjectivity, or using other methods to facilitate a desired racial balance. This can be explained in part by the behavior of bureaucrats. There do not exist compliance officers whose role it is to ensure that these laws are followed, but there do exist federal affirmative action compliance officers who focus on non-preference federal policies beyond state control, and run offices of affirmative action with varying powers, scopes, and budgets. These are people that must be answered to.

Similarly, academic senates, admissions officers, and administrators have liberal pressure groups, each other, sometimes government officials, and their own often-liberal ideology telling them that they need to achieve some desired racial balance. Many don’t want to comply with racial preference bans anyway, and even if they were not so inclined, doing so could complicate their jobs significantly.

There are rarely internal controls to counter these forces. At UCLA in 2008, a professor on the academic senate committee charged with admissions oversight asked to conduct a study to determine whether their new admissions policy was being used for racial discrimination. He was unceremoniously denied the right to do so and run off the committee, despite support from the committee’s undergraduate representatives.

All opponents of racial preferences have is the slow and unwieldy legal system – and generally the laws aren’t properly worded to rule out current tactics anyway.

K-12 education faces similar, more straightforward, problems. Teachers in a union-based seniority system are simply incentivized to stick around, not do anything utterly egregious, and demand their contractual rights. This has the dangerous side-effect of making teachers dependent on the union for their livelihood rather than their skill at their work. Solidarity and union rights are the way to success, not performance and internal competition. Some have varying incentives to raise very specific test scores (which can lead to its own problematic “teaching to the test” incentives), but in stronger union areas merit pay is far from the norm.

What are we to learn from this? When seeking the correct policies, conventional wisdom emphasizes the importance of examining at how the public will respond to changes in incentives. However, it is also important to examine how government officials will respond to a change in incentives. Good government policy requires building functioning systems that resist being undermined or swept aside by circumstance or bureaucratic resistance. Good laws and policies must go beyond mere declarations.


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