House Calls: Assessing Michigan’s Progress (or Lack Thereof) — Dem Vs. GOP

Representative Jeff Irwin, a Democrat, served for a decade as a Washtenaw County Commissioner. In January 2011, he began his first term in the Michigan House of Representatives. In his regular column, House Calls, A2Politico will pose a single question to Representative Irwin and he will answer it. The questions will focus on his work in Lansing and, of course, his efforts to bring the “progressive agenda” to state government that he told voters in Ann Arbor he intended to work on during his time in office.

A2Politico asks: According to the July 25, 2011 update to Gov. Snyder’s Dashboard, many key indicators, such as child poverty (up), infant mortality (up) and per capita income (down) show that Michigan residents are still suffering. Two million of the state’s residents are on food stamps, a record high. You and two colleagues launched the Michigan Report Card that seeks to measure government progress, but in categories suggested by constituents. Talk about the Michigan Report Card and what you hope to accomplish, short of simply throwing around more statistical data that demonstrates Michigan is failing in key areas.

Representative Jeff Irwin answers: MIReportCard.com is a web site that we created to engage citizens in defining success and measuring progress towards the goals of our state.  I encourage your readers to check it out, rate your most important priorities and tell us which metrics are the best indicators of success for Michigan.

In politics, we too often talk about a more prosperous or more successful state, but usually in vague language that hovers somewhere between ambiguous and unobjectionable.  We’ve seen this over and over again from political leaders, and Governor Rick Snyder is no different.  During his campaign he promised to create an atmosphere for economic growth.  When I heard that, I thought he meant investing in our schools.  To me, it’s obvious that if Michigan had the best schools in the nation, people and companies would flock here to set up shop. However, I knew that such a vague campaign pitch was only designed for one purpose — to sound good (or at least benign) to almost everybody.

Unfortunately, we’ve now seen the practical applications of Snyder’s campaign promises.  Schools have been slashed despite a surplus in K-12 revenues and university budgets reduced by 15 percent.  Rather than building Michigan through great schools, better infrastructure and fighting for the jobs of the future, Gov. Snyder has doubled down on tax cuts for the top earners and tax increases for pensioners and low income workers.

Despite my frustration with our current Governor and fellow U of M alumnus, there is one thing that Governor Snyder has championed that I genuinely embrace: his dashboard fetish.  Snyder wants dashboards for our schools, our cities and state government more broadly.  Snyder has mandated that each department develop a dashboard, and he’s created funding hurdles for schools and local governments who don’t join his dashboard mania.  His thinking is that if we want to improve results we must be able to identify the goals and measure the changes. I agree.

However, the state’s process of defining success and measuring progress won’t be successful if it’s a political tool for one party or another. Michigan needs a real dashboard, a report card developed by citizens, politicians and experts in relevant fields.  Michigan needs to pass HB 4660. HB 4660 would create a non-partisan and ongoing “Michigan Progress Board.”  My legislation calls for that group to be led by the Governor and to produce an annual report card, or dashboard if you will, that outlines our key goals and the main ways that we can assess our progress towards our shared goals.

This isn’t a new idea.  Other states have been doing this for quite some time.  Oregon and North Carolina are notable examples of states that have widely used this tool for governing. My legislation is largely derivative of those previous and successful efforts.

So, we’re trying to get real about Michigan’s future and we’re calling upon Governor Snyder to join us and lead a real bi-partisan effort to make Michigan’s government work better for Michigan’s people.  In the meantime, House Democrats will continue to engage with citizens and talk about specific changes and concrete ideas to make Michigan an even better place — and we need your help.  Please visit www.MIReportCard.com

P.S. One of my first experiences in government was serving on the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners.  At the time, Washtenaw County was going through something called the “Business Improvement Plan” (BIP), under the direction of former administrator Bob Guenzel.  The effort was to quantify goals and set targets for the year.  Employees were writing workplans that coalesced with the overall plan and the effort was a way to engage and empower employees to make a positive impact on the community.  I was very skeptical of the BIP because I didn’t sufficiently appreciate the value of process and I wasn’t convinced that everything can be boiled down to numbers.  In the end, I was wrong and the BIP was good for Washtenaw County Government.  The process of developing workplans and ascertaining the specific impact on our community was valuable to the leaders of the organization and to the dedicated employees doing the work in the field.  The same process would be beneficial to state government. 

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