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October 19, 2011

Open Negotiation is an Oxymoron

"…greater openness by the panel, officially known as the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, would actually be harmful to the public interest. Private meetings are essential to give the committee's six Republicans and six Democrats the freedom to step away from party orthodoxies, conduct serious negotiations and search for common ground, rather than engage in political posturing." Op Ed by Jordan Tama in the New York Times 10/19/11.

The Super Committee has an almost impossible job to do; and we are all dependent on it accomplishing that job in order to avoid mindless automatic budget cuts which'll happen if it fails. So shouldn't we all get a ringside seat for these critical deliberations? Absolutely not if we want them to succeed. Meaningful negotiations can only happen in private. "Transparency" is not always the right answer. Of course, we should know how each member of the committee votes on its final report and, of course, committee members should have to report campaign contributions (as they are already required to do). But they should be able to think, make stupid suggestions, think them through, compromise, and negotiate in private.

Why in private? Because they won't succeed if advocates can jump on and squelch any move towards compromise before it can be met by a counter-offer and before any progress can be made. The final agreement, should we be lucky enough to have one, will contain plenty for everyone to hate. Hopefully, for most of us, the overall result will be acceptable and constructive despite the individual elements we don't like. That's the way deals work. But these deals have to be put together a plank at a time. If we all have a veto over each plank out of the context of the whole structure, no deal will ever emerge. Advocates who would prefer no deal are very well aware of this dynamic. Further from the article:

"…For Democrats on the committee, political danger lurks if they back any cuts to entitlement programs, whereas for Republicans, support for any tax increases is even more perilous.

"The attacks on the committee for meeting in private are probably motivated as much (or more) by fear of the committee's succeeding as by a commitment to open government. Those calling for greater committee transparency are largely staunch conservatives, like Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, or staunch liberals, like Representative Jan Schakowsky, Democrat of Illinois, who have opposed a grand bargain that includes significant tax increases and entitlement cuts. They surely know that it will be harder to reach agreement if the panel cannot meet privately."

A year and a half ago I was point man for Governor Jim Douglas'(R-VT) Administration on a bipartisan initiative originally proposed by the very Democratic legislature called Challenges for Change. One of the challenges set by the legislature was to make education more effective at less cost. In other words, we were supposed to put together a plan which would get better educational outcomes while spending less money. The task was hard but not impossible. All money spent on "education" does not really improve educational results. Vermont has the highest staff to student ratio in the country. We have IMHO way too many school districts and consequently too much educational bureaucracy for our population. Many of our schools are too small to offer the range of courses students should have. Teachers are not compensated for excellence or dinged for inattention or incompetence. Point is that we really did have lots of levers to work with – as well as lots of interest groups opposed to any change which would affect their members.

The Commissioner of Education put together an excellent group to propose changes to the legislature. The group, which had no power except to make a recommendation, included school administrators, teachers, school board members, even the head of the Vermont Red Cross which had recently gone through a wrenching consolidation. I insisted that we meet in private. There was immediate protest.

"Tom Evslin, the state's Chief Technology Officer, who is also overseeing the education design team and the 10 others like it across state departments, says the meetings are behind closed doors so they will spark more creative thinking.

""If from the very beginning you're saying, 'Boy am I going to sound like an idiot if I make that suggestion?' then you can't really think, and so it's an opportunity perhaps for people to have dumb ideas, for people to fight about ideas,"'says Evslin.

"…The design team has to submit its ideas to lawmakers in two weeks and that is when Evslin says the public will have its chance to weigh in on the proposals.

"'It's not that they're being shut out of the process,' he says."- Interview on WCAX 3/8/10

The first two meeting were held in private. We were, I think, making great progress because people were willing to put aside their affiliations and think creatively. There was an extremely healthy back-and-forth and real dedication to achieving high quality education at a sustainable price. But interest groups were furious at being shut out… and likely afraid of what might emerge. The press (as is their job) wanted in. The pressure was too much; over my objections but with my understanding, the Education Commissioner decided that the meeting would be open.

The real public doesn't come to open meetings, of course; but the advocates came and sat there steely-eyed. No longer could a teacher speculate about how to get better performance from his or her colleagues nor could a superintendent talk about consolidation of function. We made no more progress. We made no meaningful recommendation to the legislature other than to count savings that had already occurred. The legislature gave "education" a hall pass on change and left the problem to grow and be addressed another day (which is rapidly coming).

Greater transparency in government is usually a good idea, but not always. One can argue with some evidence that the age of openness is also an age when art of political compromise seems to have been lost. Open negotiation is an oxymoron. No one can afford to propose the first concession in public; no one can risk going out on a limb in search of agreement in the glare of television lights.

Legislatures appoint special committees when they are afraid of the political price for confronting the need for change. Sometimes these committees really can cobble together something workable, a better than zero sum solution. But these committees can only function if they can formulate a plan in private for later public review. If we want a reasonable budget plan, we have to make sure that those who don't really want any plan or are against all compromise can't kill thought and negotiation with calls for premature "openness".

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