When The Vending Machine Breaks

Pete Peterson
Dean, Pepperdine University Graduate School of Public Policy

The highly respected City Manager of Ventura, Rick Cole, employs the “vending machine/customer” metaphor in describing what has become the de facto relationship between citizens and their governing institutions. As Cole tells it, “the unspoken mindset of many of our customers is that local government is a like a vending machine. You put your money in the slot and expect to receive the goods and services you desire.”

This shift from citizen to “customer” is fairly recent, originating in the 1980s and early 90s, when governments from cities to the Feds, incorporated the new customer service ideology then used by the private sector. Instead of viewing government as something one participates in, this change produced a scenario where it was just another service provider and taxes became the cost for those services.

The possible outcome of this trend is driven home by Northwestern University’s John McKnight, who has written, “The service ideology [in governments] will be consummated when citizens believe that they cannot know whether they have a need, cannot know what that remedy is, [and] cannot understand the process that purports to meet the need.”

I was reminded of this thinking earlier this week when reading Cathleen Decker’s piece in the Los Angeles Times about the cash-strapped LA County child welfare agency, which was being blamed for the deaths of 14 children within its system during 2008. As Decker tells it, this is an all too common tragedy: “The county has seen those sorts of headlines before.”

At first I thought Decker was just kicking the vending machine, to return to Cole’s analogy, but, no, she used this example to attack the customer – namely, us: “at bottom, the events of the last week were a reminder of the ever-shrinking options in a state where people just don’t want to finance a bigger government.” It has become a common trope of some in the media to decry the so-called duplicity of Californians on budget issues, but these attacks not only perpetuate the unsustainable customer/service provider paradigm, but demonstrate the inadequacy of most public polling on budget issues.

Throughout California and across America, cities are being faced with budget decisions of a size they have never faced. Rather than shaking the “vending machine”, cities and their residents are working together in fundamentally new ways. The popular story of Kauai’s Polihale State Park is just one example. Faced with the State-mandated closure of the park due to recent flooding in December, local business owners and surfers gathered together to open the park road that ran from the main highway to the beach.

This was no small “beach clean-up”, but a significant public works project, which the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) estimated to cost over $4 million, and take more than a year to finish. The all-volunteer group has finished the project in less than a month at a fraction of that price with all materials – including five tons of steel – donated. “Public works” indeed.

When originally confronted by the disaster, the DLNR responded by holding a local town meeting: not to discuss how they could work together to open the park, but to ask residents to support a ballot measure for more department funding. The reply is, unfortunately, typical of most institutions – public or private – when challenged by difficult circumstances: either they “look in” at their own resources, or “look up” for more resources. Often missing has been an attempt to “look out” at local residents for what they can do to support their local communities – beyond simply paying higher taxes. But this is changing.

I have spoken with many California cities over these past few months that instead of rashly closing down programs, are seeking public involvement in brand new ways. From public events like fairs and street carnivals to public services like public safety and park services, cities are partnering with local business and civic organizations to maintain service levels at a time when tax increases just won’t close the gap.

The Decker piece also cites recent California public opinion surveys, which supposedly show our double-mindedness when it comes to the services vs. revenues question. Most of this polling suffers from what I call, “Do you want fries with that-syndrome”. Essentially, by asking respondents whether they want either “more services” or “lower taxes” outside of any context as to the impact of one upon the other, the results are fairly predictable. Decker describes last year’s Field Poll on the 30th anniversary of Prop 13: “When voters were asked if they wanted government to provide more services, they assented, 61% to 30%. But when they were asked if they would like more services ‘even if it means raising your taxes and fees,’ support plummeted and voters were split 44% to 40%.” Well, duh.

But this type of questioning also shows the shallowness of most polling in shaping budget decisions. What does “more services” mean? Even if we were to break them down – as PPIC does more admirably in its annual “Californians and their Government” survey – how does cutting the budget for K12 less than prisons actually affect our everyday lives? The PPIC study showed that Californians were very willing to increase taxes on others (wealthiest, and corporations), but no context was provided as to how either of these policies might adversely affect the overall economy. This line of surveying only proves one side of human nature: “tax unto others rather than having them tax unto you.”

In a burgeoning trend, many cities across the country and several here in California are undertaking more in-depth, “participatory budgeting” efforts, where residents both learn about and offer opinions on their local finances over a period of three to five hours. In Salinas, the organization I work with, Common Sense California, has funded and consulted on such a campaign that has drawn many Salinas residents over the last couple months. Cities like Brea and La Habra either have or are undertaking similar projects this year.

I attended one of the Salinas workshops in early April, and watched as about 100 residents came out on a Wednesday night to wrestle with the difficult decisions involved in closing a $20 million deficit in a $100 million general fund budget. Towards the end of the three-hour session, residents began to take ownership of the problem – asking what they could do to make the city a place “where the kids would want to return after college.”

It’s a process I have witnessed many times: as residents learn about the difficult trade off decisions their public leaders have to make, they wonder what they can do to help keep their communities livable and sustainable. These examples, and many others, highlight the new relationship that is developing between local governments and their residents – more collaborative and participatory. It seems that when the vending machine is broken, more and more Californians, instead of kicking it or putting more money in, are joining with others to make their own lunches.

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