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Direct Democracy

August 6, 2009

My friend, former Ohio State Fire Marshal Bob Rielage, recently posted an article on Fire Chief magazine’s Mutual Aid blog.  In it he discusses an idea proposed by Hamilton County, Ohio Auditor Dusty Rhodes that would require all funding initiatives for local services to come before the voters on the ballot at the same time.  Such a measure, he reckons, would encourage people to prioritize their demands for services, and discourage public administrators from gaming the system by structuring funding measures in ways that conceal the true cost of their services and dilute accountability for their performance and results.

Bob poses the right sorts of questions for public administrators to consider were this approach to become the norm for funding municipal services.  For starters, he asks how we would fare with such direct accountability, and what services we would sacrifice if we proved unable to convince voters to support us.

It might be worthwhile to note that in the part of our country where direct democracy of the sort envisioned by this proposal remains the rule rather than the exception, New England, the volunteer service delivery model remains the norm for fire services and few towns have more than a couple thousand residents.  This suggests that direct democracy works best in compact, tight-knit communities of small scale, where the scope of services remain within the ken of most residents and taxpayers.

The more removed people become from the goods and service they pay for and what it takes to deliver them, the less realistic such a decision-making process becomes.  For starters, such an arrangement almost inevitably assumes the structure of a zero-sum game, when, in fact, the pie can be enlarged rather than being cut into smaller and smaller pieces, if only people are willing to tax themselves to do so.  Since this seems unlikely, the inevitable result is to turn the contest into one that relies more on emotion and compromise than reason and cooperation.

The fire service has already discovered the practical limits of the former strategy.  People fear crime and a number of other ills, real or imagined, far more than they fear fire and its effects.  In response, fire department have taken on a broader array of services, often with little or no public mandate to do so.  Meanwhile, firefighters have become more and more active politically to the point in some communities that they and the teachers’ unions are among the biggest donors to candidates’ campaigns.  In some instances, they have used the access and influence that comes from patronage to award themselves pay and benefits that few private sector employers can rival and many communities can no longer afford.

I would like to see much more transparency and direct public involvement in processes of public sector budgeting and performance auditing.  (For once, the federal government under the leadership of President Obama can be said to have taken a leading role in this regard.)  We can and should seek to improve both efficiency and accountability of fire and emergency services.  Democracy, in this case, however, is not something that happens only at the ballot box.

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