Two main things can be said about Gov. Rick Snyder’s businesslike and largely successful State of the State speech.
First, it wasn’t filled with uplifting, easily forgettable “vision statements,” the way most such speeches are. It was matter-of-fact, and it covered a lot of ground. It was, in short, the speech of a businessman who considers it his job to make Michigan government work well and efficiently. He aims to identify and resolve problems … and to set up measures of accountability.
Accountability! Since when have we heard that word in the once-hallowed halls of government, where good intentions are usually judged according to their sound and not their results?
The core of the speech was the “Michigan Dashboard,” a website setting out 21 measures of how Michigan is performing on the big-picture subjects: the economy, health and education, quality of life, public safety and “value for government.”
The Dashboard will be updated periodically to give both the public and folks in government an idea of how we stack up against other states — and indicate whether we’re making progress or not
Most importantly, however, it’s a public device to hold public officials accountable for performance. Devices like this are a relatively common business tool, a quick and easy way to see how things are going. The idea is to allow management to focus time and resources on important areas rather than waste energy on largely scattershot approaches.
But when it comes to government, introducing a transparent, updated, publicly available way to judge actual progress — or lack of it –is nothing short of revolutionary. It puts the focus squarely on actual data, benchmarked against other states.
Among other good things, it’ll help eliminate debates in Lansing based on incomplete or inaccurate information, or in many cases, on mere ideology. There is something enormously refreshing about our state’s leading political figure putting a priority on just the facts.
Bottom line: If Snyder wanted to make a qualitative change in the way our state is governed, installing the Michigan Dashboard in the heart of his State of the State speech was a great way to do it.
Snyder didn’t exactly invent this approach but few governors I know of have ever held up such a specific and public mirror by which the public can judge their success. In terms of other such metrics, the Oregon Progress Board has tracked the state’s standing on dozens of quality of life measures for years. and, The Center for Michigan has published since 2008 a “Michigan Scorecard” tracking 29 topics in a similar manner.
No doubt there will be reasonable quibbles about the dashboard’s design. There is little attention paid to the environment. Attendance at state parks is hardly the only good measure of how we’re taking care of our woods and waters. And the value-for-government chart shows Michigan state government operating cost as a percentage of gross state product (the best measure of the size of our economy) without benchmarking it against other states.
But overall, it’s a great step. And it signifies a governor who is interested in how things really are rather than how they might be.
However, where there is no vision, the people perish. And although the governor said he was going to issue future messages on the budget, education and other subjects, he didn’t set out a strategic roadmap to chart Michigan’s route to prosperity.
I think Michigan citizens deserve one, and here’s my suggestion. The first imperative is to get Michigan’s financial house in order. If Snyder does in fact replace the Michigan Business Tax with the corporate tax he‘s been touting, he’ll be facing a deficit in the general fund of something over $3 billion.
One thing he has to do, regardless, is settle once and for all the decade-long problem of our chronic structural budget deficit. For years, our leaders have done nothing but throw accounting gimmicks and one-time fixes at it. Much of that will be addressed in the budget message – which everybody thinks will give new meaning to the word “draconian.” He also is urging adoption of a two-year budget.
Getting that done may take the first two years of Snyder’s term. But what’s next? The governor should know full well that to survive, any company needs a shared vision of its best future.
Only when that vision is fleshed out can a strategic competitive plan be developed. Not till then can any firm identify its key, durable, strategic competitive assets and then launch a sustained program that involves investing in, as well as capitalizing on, those assets.
That business model should be Michigan’s agenda for the second two years of Snyder’s Administration. We have lots of competitive assets – our universities, our environment, the quality of life in our communities. But over the last decade we’ve starved these assets by throwing money piecemeal at all kinds of irrelevant things like tax credits for the film industry. We need a precise and focused plan of investing in the public good that make our state competitive.
What’s fundamental is to have a clear idea of where we’re going and how we get there. That’s what good leaders provide.
And the good news is that so far, that seems to be exactly what our new governor is in the process of doing.
Editor’s Note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think-and-do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of The Center. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.