here for PDF format
for participants' responses to this interview.
of Meeting with Dane Smith
8301 Creekside Circle,
Bloomington, MN 55437
Friday, May 1, 2009
Verne Johnson, Chair; Dave Brodin, Jim Hetland, Dan Loritz, Tim McDonald,
Jim Olson (phone)
Context of the meeting—
Today’s meeting is
with Dane Smith, President of Growth & Justice, to discuss that group’s
recent report Governing with Accountability.
The report can be
found on their website, at:
Another report put out
in October of 2008, Smart Investments for Minnesota Students, can
be found at: http://www.growthandjustice.org/sites/2d9abd3a-10a9-47bf-ba1a-fe315d55be04/uploads/Accountability_Report_Web.pdf.
The report was
recently praised on Minnesota Public Radio by state Commissioner of
Education Alice Seagren for its rooting in evidenced-based
From Growth & Justice:
Dane Smith was named
president of Growth & Justice in April 2007 after concluding a 30-year
career as a journalist for the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press, where
he developed a solid reputation reporting and writing about state, local
and federal government and politics. He succeeds founder and executive
Joel Kramer, who now serves as chair of the board…
…Dane is co-author
of the book, “Professor Wellstone Goes to Washington: The Inside Story of
a Grassroots U.S. Senate Campaign.” In 1989-90, Dane was the recipient of
the John S. Knight Fellowship for Professional Journalists, providing a
mid-career sabbatical and a year of study at
University. Dane holds a B.A. in Journalism from the
of St. Thomas
and an A.A. degree from Inver Hills Community College, where also has
served as an adjunct faculty member.
Comments and discussion—During
the discussion, the following points were raised:
Growth and Justice
A member asked Dane
for a quick review of Growth and Justice as an organization. “We are a
policy research organization and I think we are distinctive and
refreshing,” he said, because of our “recognition that both private and
public sectors are good and necessary. We are a pro-government,
similarities with the Citizens League? The two groups are similar, Dane
said, in their non-partisan and balanced view of public affairs and their
emphasis on good government. Growth and Justice emphasizes civic
engagement but they are not a grassroots or membership organization.
The two organizations
differ somewhat on process. Where the Citizens League utilizes member-led
study committees to draft reports, Growth and Justice relies on the
expertise of research associates, steering committees of stakeholders and
experts and project staff. Ideologically, Growth and Justice is somewhat
more openly progressive in its world view and on tax-and-budget issues
than the Citizen’s League.
The group has 50-60
advisors, and a mailing list of approximately 5,000. Annual budget is
between $500-600,000, and “like many groups, we are facing budget
difficulties this year.”
What about its
founding; its genesis? The organization’s founder is Joel Kramer, also
founder of MinnPost, who left the Star Tribune with a substantial
compensation package when McClatchy bought the paper in 1998. He ran for
Lieutenant Governor in 2002 for “about three weeks,” and was a bit taken
aback by the polarity of politics, particularly regarding views over the
proper role of both the public and private sector in the economy.
Growth and Justice
understands government for the people and by the people as an agent for
public investment. But we also need to “Do it right, and with
accountability, smarter, and with respect for the legitimate needs of
business and markets.’’
They do not take
positions in the fights on social issues, Dane added. Do they have a PAC;
are they at the legislature? They are not active in campaigns or producing
elected official “scorecards’’ but they are at the capital promoting
their principles, the components of which follow, for the initiative on
Governing with Accountability
In their new report
Growth and Justice seeks ways to make government work better. How do they
define accountability? Six principles in their report are as follows:
Set long-term goals
transparency, straight talk and open books
responsibly and fairness
Focus on efficiency
accountability for results
A question came: How
do you make the non-elected aspects of government accountable? There are
false notions about government out there, Dane said, revolving around
ideas that it is ineffective and is a hindrance to society. In fact it is
effective, and does have a purpose. “We have heard from the beginning that
government is a black hole. That’s just not true.”
Dane continued that
elected officials are probably in ways too accountable in the sense
that they stretch to meet immediate demands and desires of voters at the
expense of long term considerations. We often hear that government needs
to be run more like a business, he said, but businesses can be even more
‘irrationally accountable.’ Public companies have cycles of accountability
that are shorter still—quarterly. Bureaucrats to the contrary are more
interested in longer term thinking, and that is a merit we should not
Ideologues reside on
both sides about government, Dane noted. This bores the public and the
media. There is minimal interest today in public affairs. Many of those in
the public bureaucracies, to their credit, are interested.
The chair asked Dane
to comment on the different natures of accountability between elected
officials and high-level public managers. On a scale of 1 to 10, Dane
pondered, he would put the quality of the bureaucrats at 8; elected
officials probably a 7. A Caucus member with history in both state
agencies and the executive branch agreed with this assessment.
The report includes
two quotes from Ted Kolderie, who has been in the public-sector design
business for decades. Here is one:
institutions behave the way that they are structured. If you don’t like
the way they are behaving, you have to change how they are structured.
Structural remedies drive performance remedies.
Kolderie gave a speech
in 1991 that emphasized the extra-ordinary nature of Minnesota’s public,
private, and civic sectors, arguing that we are able to fight above our
weight in all sectors because we offer a better product. See a transcript
of the speech here:
performance, Kolderie warns, can crumble if not actively maintained.
Dane is worried that
public sector now has deteriorated, in significant part because of a
decrease in tax revenues.
There is a sense among
hard-line conservatives, he said, that any goals-oriented leadership by
the state amounts to “central planning’’ or even “communism.” The
governors returned surpluses of recent years instead of saving it for
harder economic times.
Growth and Justice
supports taxation known as ”progressive,’’ whereby higher rates of
taxation apply to high earners.
A question: If we
raise income tax on the high-end, we will be one of the highest-taxing
states in the country. Some members present know of older people who have
left the state because of this. How will this affect jobs?
Dane replied that
Minnesota has always been one of the highest-taxing states, but “we have
also been able to offer the best product.” Those states with the most
regressive tax systems and lowest taxes, he added, tend also to have
the “greatest inequality and lower quality of life.” The economic cost of
higher income taxes “could be a couple thousand jobs,” Dane reflected,
“but we’ve got two million jobs in the state.” And draconian cuts in the
public sector can have even larger negative impacts on the economy.
He noted that a higher
income tax is not the only solution. We could broaden the sales tax, which
has the added benefit of helping hedge the volatility of the state’s
Reacting to this, a
core member remarks “But that money (of wealthy individuals) doesn’t leave
the economy—and it is what allows a group like Growth and Justice to
responded, “but at what point does inequality become a problem.?”
Another core member
came in with this thought: “There is too much focus on the gross tax rate,
when we should be more interested in ways to get to the net rate that
people pay. This is where the inequality resides, between people who are
able to cut away at their gross and those that aren’t.”
and Justice at the capitol
The group is working
on two initiatives presently, at the capitol. The first has to do with
their 2008 report Smart Investments for Minnesota Students,
represented in the House and Senate by HF1188 and SF954, respectively.
Traces of each are found in the E-12 omnibus bills.
initiative this session involves promoting the notion that there are no
silver bullets to our state’s economic problems but, getting back to the
idea of system-design, there are strategies.
On education a Caucus
member notes that their call for implementing proven strategies
“presupposes you have an education program that can be responsive.
“Very true,” Dane
responded, adding that “Results of our public education system are
impressive” outside of the most dire spots. He said that he is encouraged
by movements to “de-institutionalize” schools, opening up online options
in addition to other forms of innovation. He is unsure to what degree
information technologies can be a solution.
Dane cited a report
recently released by Public Strategies Group (PSG) out of Saint Paul,
outlining ideas for improving government. The
report was commissioned by local foundations in response to the economic
crisis, and can be found at:
changing face of local engagement in public affairs: news media, business
Naturally there were
questions for Dane about what he thinks of the future of news media in the
metro region, in the state, and nationally.
function of professional news media is being lost, he observed, as greater
disintermediation is taken on by the Internet. People used to have their
three levels of “trusted sources”: national, regional, local. Regional are
being hit hardest. People are moving toward more opinionated sources.
A member followed-up
on civic engagement in public affairs: Are foundations now filling roles
that business used to play?
You’re probably on to
something, Dane said. Business seems to be moving to the right on civic
engagement, he said, though he then agreed with another member that
perhaps this has to do more-so with the global-focus of today compared to
use of constitutional amendments for assigning revenue
To a question along
this line Dane replied that he does not support such a strategy for
allocating funds. “The constitution is large enough already and most
policy experts think that the constitution is a terrible tool to use for
setting tax-and-budget policy.”
The chair asked Dane
if he had any final thoughts.
We forget sometimes
all the great things that government in America has done, Dane said:
getting to the moon ahead of time, bringing women and minorities up from
second class status. This is extraordinary, really, he observed.
A core member added
that the operative word here is ‘American’—that it is liberal democracy
that has allowed these things to occur, not ‘government,’ per se. Under
many forms of government these great feats could not have been achieved,
and have not yet. “Well said,” Dane agreed.
Thank you to Dane, for
Prior to the meeting
Dane was provided with some questions to think on. He drafted responses,
accept as a "given" the existing structures of government?
Not in the least, nor should we accept as a given that the existing
structures are “broken” or must be radically restructured. Lots of things
are obsolete. Two chambers of the Legislature, given one-person, one-vote.
The Electoral College. County governments with a courthouse that’s one
day’s horse travel away from every resident. We’ve been wrestling over
bureaucratic reform for a couple hundred years.
not, to what extent can structural changes make it easier to implement
Anne Knapp from
our group in the early going kept talking about how legislation and
appropriations need to have goals-language appended to every major outlay
or bill. I’d like to quote Ted Kolderie here, who was quoting somebody
named Walt McClure: “If you don’t like the way institutions and
organizations are behaving, you probably ought to change the way they’re
structured and rewarded.” So this makes sense. Thoughtful and
constructive and goal-oriented structural change, not just shaking things
up, makes all the sense in the world. The options in the Bottom Line
report by the five foundations and PSG provide examples of imaginative
you cite services where accountability principles seem to be followed very
well now or where principles were followed well in the past?
I’ll take this opportunity to be boldly unconventional and to
assert that from the broadest possible perspective, Minnesota has somehow
done a better job of following these principles than most states, and I’ll
assert that the United States has done a pretty fine job of setting goals,
having leaders commit to them, installing transparency.
A few years back I
wrote a three-part series documenting all the amazing accomplishments
achieved by governments in
Minnesota and the
United States, especially since the New Deal, with reaching the moon and
elevating two-thirds of our citizens out of second-class citizenship being
two of them.
But to get more
specific and less cosmic on the subject, we point out in our report that
Oregon seem to be by consensus the leaders in planning, innovation,
applying evidence and data to measure problems and progress, and in
accountability in front, in general. If you start reading the literature,
and the U.K., despite their reputation for sclerotic and inefficient,
seems to be a lot of thinking and doing on this front.
The Humprhey Institute
grants annual awards to cities and counties and school districts for
achievements in innovation and improvement. I went to one of tthese awards
presentations last month, and it seemed like
Roseville seems to be
a hotbed of interesting and innovative community improvement and
there any difference in the accountability approach of elected officials
from that of administrators?
The former are
all about accountability NOW, as in the next November Election Day, and
one way to think about that is as Ultimate Accountability Day. I think
sometimes people don’t appreciate how incredibly accountable politicians
are, especially in swing districts, and of course the big critique of
politicians in general is they are too accountable for short-term results
and not focused enough on long-term results.
The very same thing
can be said of business and corporations and the banking industry in
particular lately. Only, despite what has been said ad infinitum about
government needing to be run more like a business, business is often even
more irrationally accountable to just the next quarterly report. It’s
funny, I’m just not hearing so much anymore that government ought to be
run like a business.
The latter (the
bureaucracy) of course, are much more into conventional long-term
strategizing, along the model of having goals, some idea of continuity in
policy, and planning. In general, I think administrators and public
employees, are far more interested in the general subject of
accountability and good government than elected officials are. One whole
set of elected officials, movement conservatives and essentially
anti-government purists, don’t really get zealous about improving
something tht they think should wither away, or just provide armies and
By the same token,
liberals who have created the large public structures don’t like to get
too serious about challenging their fundamental modus operandi or their
right to exist. The general public seems bored by the subject, despite the
current craze over the word transparency. The subject generally bores the
bejeezus out of the news media and the increasingly even the print media
just doesn’t have time for this level of nuance and detail and
I remember in the
glory days of the Star Tribune, probably also the glory days of public
involvement, we used to put practically every Citizens League report on
the front page, or at least the metro cover. Rep. Winker and Sen. Clark
and some other legislators held a press conference on the subject more
than a year ago, and basically, nobody came.
Line was not attended by more than one or two reporters, one from MinnPost
and one from the STrib editorial page.
outlined several areas of concern, higher ed, K-12, pensions, etc. Is
there a way to assure your accountability principles are incorporated in
policy toward these areas?
I don’t want to
get too metaphysical but there’s no way to assure anything. Legislation
was actually passed in 2008, and weakly implemented in the 2009 Pawlenty
administration’s budget proposal, that required appropriations proposals
to actually note the goals toward Minnesota Milestones and how the
appropriation advanced or affected those goals.
whom should your report apply?
Citizens, local governments and state government, public employees,
business interests in particular. I would love to get funding from
corporate foundations for further work in this area. It’s very much in
their long-term interests to have better government, better education
systems, better human services, less expensive health-care, and so
group that seeks to influence public policy?
We would hope so, yes. Any ideas you might have on how to get folks really
excited about all this would be most appreciated.
are the incentives for elected officials to apply these principles?
Well, it would undeniably be the right thing to do. They will go to
heaven, or a better place, if they follow these principles. They can sleep
better when they retire.
expect we'll have one daily in a very short time?
Very, very possible.
Non-profit or for-profit?
I love this idea of not-for-profit journalism. Joel Kramer and MinnPost
are blazing a trail. I have often observed that the best radio is
not-for-profit and public, the best TV is not-for-profit and public, why
not print journalism too. For some reason, print media as a sector got
locked into 20 percent profit margins as an expectation, and that led to
too much speculative leveraged buying and so now, even though newspapers
are making a small profit aside from their debt payments, they are in
bankruptcy because of the debt.