JACK SPENCER: A tough nut to crack

Tourism campaign: The Pure Michigan campaign has its share of supporters and its adversaries. The effectiveness of the tourism campaign is difficult to quantifiy and there are many questions about exactly what the “brand” stands for. (Courtesy photo)
Tourism campaign: The Pure Michigan campaign has its share of supporters and its adversaries. The effectiveness of the tourism campaign is difficult to quantifiy and there are many questions about exactly what the “brand” stands for. (Courtesy photo)

In early 2011, the word was out. Incoming Gov. Rick Snyder was going to change the “governmental culture” in Lansing. Yet, that culture remains virtually the same as it has been for decades. In spite of the brave assertion of two and a half years ago, it is neither significantly altered nor even shaken.

Government, under its most accurate definition, consists of more than just the politicians, bureaucrats, attorneys and bean-counters who receive their paychecks from the taxpayers. It also includes a myriad of lobbyists, associations, coalitions, public relations firms and political party functionaries that serve an array of special interests.

In a sense, all of these people share the same job. For them, personal success hinges on the degree to which they achieve what the special interests they represent are seeking.

Meanwhile, most of the politicians, bureaucrats, attorneys and bean-counters are doing a slightly different version of the same thing. Whether it is a politician posturing for the next election or a bureaucrat fending off possible cuts to their particular program or department, their focus is always on their own self-interests.

Seen from an imaginary overview, this might well be compared to a busy and bustling anthill, with scores of individual ants constantly pursuing their own goals. These goals can be completely separate and singular, overlapping, slightly or directly linked to each other, or in direct conflict to the goals others are pursuing.

The central element of what is generally termed “politics” hasn’t changed since the days when tribes wandered around wearing animal skins. At the tribal level, it was the process of determining which desires, needs, and goals of individuals within the tribe would be addressed and how they’d be addressed. Over time, tribes became nations, but “politics” changed only in scope. At the national level, it is the process of determining which desires, needs, and goals of groups or subgroups within the nation will be addressed and how they’ll be addressed.

Variations of these political processes are what distinguish different types of governments. Even under dictatorships, people learn how to react to the political process. They find out how they’re most and least likely to get a desired result — even if that result is simple survival.

So it is completely natural for those who work in, or close to, our state government, to utilize techniques and tricks of the trade that have proven successful in the past. The tendency to rely on these techniques form what might be called the current “governmental culture.” However, it should be noted that this “governmental culture” is not sufficient unto itself. It is actually a reflection of, and reaction to, the prevailing political process. If the techniques and tricks of the trade cease to yield desired results, the “governmental culture” must change.

Snyder had a golden opportunity to send a strong message that he intended to force such a change. In his first State of the State Address he promised that the performance of programs and practices would be measured. Implicit to this idea was the premise that what was working would be kept intact or expanded; and what wasn’t working would be disposed of.

Had Snyder ended this part of his address at that juncture, it would have been incomplete but at least worthwhile. Instead, he used one of the worst examples he could have chosen. Pointing to PureMichigan, which is basically the state’s ongoing advertising campaign, Snyder claimed its performance had been measured and proven to be successful.

The truth is that it is probably impossible to objectively measure the performance of a promotional campaign like PureMichigan. Snyder’s claim was based on a survey done by a firm with a track record of never finding the promotional campaigns of any states to be anything other than successful.

What’s more, the methodology of the survey was a joke. It lacked any sort of control over who participated and how many times they participated. Absolutely nothing prevented proponents of PureMichigan from filling out multiple survey sheets, giving glowing recommendations about the program, and turning them in to be tabulated. No one who is truly serious about gaging performance would accept the results of a survey that used such a transparently flawed method.

This use of the PureMichigan survey as an example of government measuring performance completely altered the meaning of Snyder’s message. To anyone in and around government, it meant that while the new governor was giving lip service to making a significant change, he was really giving a nod to doing the same old stuff.

Perhaps in advertently, Snyder has made a key move toward transparency as regards PureMichigan. He has blended it into the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) to an extent that it is virtually impossible to separate the two entities. This blending serves to clarify what many have always known; which is that MEDC is basically just the state’s advertising and promotional wing.

When viewed in this way, it puts a different light on the millions of dollars MEDC spends on “economic development.” While it is, arguably, impossible to measure the success of the PureMichigan promotions, the performance of MEDC’s economic development programs can be, and should be, measured.

Unfortunately Snyder has yet to take the step that would put teeth in his promise of measuring performance. No one should expect an advertising and promotional agency to give honest evaluations of the very same programs that it promotes.

This task should be given to an outside agency that has nothing at stake, regardless of the findings its investigations unveil. If Snyder had made that move two and a half years ago, it would have sent a meaningful message that he was serious about changing the “governmental culture” in Lansing.

Instead, the entire idea is apparently no longer operative. No one in the Snyder administration seems to be talking about changing the culture anymore. At this point it is fair to ask: to what degree has that culture changed him?

Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter associated with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP). MCPP provides policy analysis. The political analysis represented in this column does not necessarily reflect the views of the Mackinac Center.