A multicolored quilt of circles and squares, connected by faint gray lines, charted the 80-plus programs serving low-income Americans for $1 trillion per year. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder stared at it.
“How many unduplicated people are on this?”
He wanted to know how many Michigan residents were represented on the chart that Nick Lyon had brought to the governor’s conference room for a Nov. 30 meeting. Lyon is director of Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
“About 2.5 million,” Lyon replied.
“How many duplicated?” Snyder fired back. “If you just took each one of those programs and bubbles and added up all the members. I got to believe there is over 10 million.”
“Oh yea,” Lyon said. “It’ll be over 10 million.”
Snyder nodded, his point made: Programs aren’t people. The ludicrously complicated Congressional Research Service chart illustrates how government operations are stuck in the 20th century: While corporations, campaigns, and other social institutions are using micro-parsing technologies to serve their customers (or voters) on an individualized, almost customized basis, government still operates in the macro—counting and caring for programs, not people.
A bureaucrat looks at the chart and sees 80-plus programs serving 10 million Michigan clients, double- and triple-counting people enrolled in more than one program.
Snyder sees 2.5 million of his fellow citizens lost in a multicolored maze.
“Just think how crazy the system is,” the twice-elected Republican governor told me in a recent interview. “We’re treating it like there’s 10 million clients in the system rather than 2.5 million customers.”
This anecdote illustrates how Snyder tries to approach governing differently. He didn’t start the meeting with Lyon by demanding to know where cuts could be made, as would a Reagan Republican. Nor did he start with the assumption that more money will solve the chart’s riddle, as would a Roosevelt Democrat.
A nerdy, data-driven former businessman, Snyder refuses to engage in the retro argument over whether government should be bigger or smaller. He says he wants it to be better.
After winning reelection in 2014, Snyder promised in his January State of the State address to make government a stronger advocate for Michigan residents struggling to reenter what he calls the “river of opportunity.”
“What we’ve done is we’ve sliced and diced people into programs, we’ve moved away from treating them as real people and, in some cases, we’ve taken some of their dignity,” Snyder said in the January speech.
“Quite often, we’re addressing symptoms. We’re not addressing root cause,” he continued. “In some cases, we’re actually facilitating dependence on state government. That’s not right. We’ve also built a lot of bureaucracy and inefficiency in the system, and that’s not right.”
A month later, Snyder signed an executive order to merge two health-services departments, promising “a fundamentally better way of service. Of efficient, effective, and accountable government. Let’s treat people as people, not programs.”
The cynic inside me is wary of a politician who promises to reform government. I’ve seen Democrats like Bill Clinton and Republicans like George W. Bush wrap themselves in the mantle of change while they pursued conventional courses. If Snyder is a faux reformer, he disguises it well behind gobs of data and the passion of an evangelist.
Talking to me about judicial reform, Snyder mentioned that the state corrections system traditionally waited until prisoners were three months from being released to begin reentry programs. “To be honest with you, I think that’s kind of dumb,” he said. Snyder recently hired a new prisons chief and ordered her to begin reentry programs from the start of each inmate’s sentence.
Recognizing the national disgrace of over-sentenced drug convicts, Snyder supports using probation options and diversionary court programs to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison. After the state Supreme Court struck down mandatory-sentencing laws, Snyder hinted that he may ask the state legislature to retroactively reduce the sentences of people in prison under the old guidelines.
“These are the things you learn when you get a chance to really dig in,” he said, “and this is what I really enjoy: Digging in.”
He’s dug into Detroit, working closely with Democratic Mayor Mike Duggan to secure $178 million in state funding for the city’s bankruptcy bailout. Now that Detroit has made the first step toward a decades-long revival, Snyder wants to solve the school crisis via a commission that would oversee all public and charter schools inside the city limits.
A complicated school-debt restructuring plan would cost the state $72 million a year for 10 years. Taxpayers outside Detroit are likely to balk, triggering ancient racial and regional rifts, but Snyder thinks he can get it done.
“It’s the right thing to do,” he said.
Snyder says he has big plans for his next State of the State address Jan. 19. He wants to change the way leaders govern and increase the public’s trust in government, two goals worthy of the presidential candidate he decided not to be.
“This is cool stuff!” he said halfway through our conversation, giggling like a nerd at his first Star Trek convention. “This is what government can do. So I’m excited about this stuff.”
It’s refreshing to see a politician as passionate about governing as he is about winning.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.
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