The False Promise of Spreadsheet Public Policy
“The people of Flint got stuck on the losing end of decisions driven by spreadsheets instead of water quality and public health.” — Dennis Schornack, Aide to Gov. Snyder
Republicans just love standardized tests to measure “outcomes” — especially to evaluate the performance of the public sector. Ask any school teacher and you’re bound to get an earful.
Fully enamored of the concept, newly elected Gov. Snyder implemented his Michigan Open Performance Portal, aka dashboard, back in 2011 as a means to measure the progress of his “relentless positive action” found through “best practices” — a misguided calculation intended to culminate in his triumphal presidential aspirations. The governor’s administrative team also touted the online tool as a shining example of governmental transparency — a real-time repository of actionable information. Yet, time has proven, over and again, that his spreadsheet-based policy plans have failed to demonstrate measurable, or even anecdotal, progress at nearly every turn during his troubled tenure in Lansing.
And now, Michigan finds the governor’s dashboard gone tragically haywire, not just in concept, but in terms of actually measuring anything remotely useful — if it’s even functioning at all. The dashboard’s stated goal was to “provide a starting point for change in communities.” In reality, it reports stale-dated, static data in a number of generalized categories, while too often missing meaningful content where it truly matters. Additionally, it offers some spotty in-depth numbers specific to sub-categories, at times touching-on individual units of government through a variety of links — which may, or may not work.
Here’s the perpetual “page not found” message for the Flint dashboard — a city that was subjected to years of rule by the governor’s hand-picked emergency manager.
The Flint water crisis, arguably the most critical consideration in Michigan, is conspicuously absent from the governor’s statewide dashboard — not found under any of the eight primary categories, including “Health and Wellness”,”Infrastructure”, nor “Public Safety”, or even “Energy and Environment.” Even in the subcategory of “Water”, all we find are metrics for monitoring beaches, aquatic invasive species, and raw sewage discharge. Toxic levels of lead in the drinking water apparently doesn’t merit a mention, footnote, or an obscure link. Nothing.
The links to Michigan’s counties are equally useless. Of the 83 counties in the state, 82 have ratings on health “outcomes” and “factors” based on 2014 data compiled by County Health Rankings.org. (Keweenaw County is not ranked.) Genesee, with its county seat of Flint, ranks 81st under both categories, yet the detailed report indicates a zero percentage of problems under “drinking water violations“, employing data from 2012/13.
Snyder’s focus on corporate-model public policy apparently extends only to measuring the bottom line of the balance sheet — health outcomes simply don’t factor into the equation. If meaningful measurements were taken, they are nowhere to be found. A former Snyder advisor, Dennis Schornack, explained how the governor failed the citizens of Flint:
“The people of Flint got stuck on the losing end of decisions driven by spreadsheets instead of water quality and public health.”
The fallout from Snyder’s disastrous policies has become an academic case study at a number of universities. Bridge magazine reports that Wayne State, Grand Valley State, Michigan State, and Harvard have already focused on the details of his failed legacy. As academics write curriculum on Flint, Snyder’s dashboard still remains out-of-order — begging the question: What else don’t we know about the other 82 counties, including unranked Keweenaw, with its pristine shoreline?