26 June 2014

Acknowledge success but work on failure

I often point out how politicians and water managers fail when it comes to making and implementing policies.

Do not take my criticism as disrespect for ALL politicians and managers. Many are quietly and competently working for us.

I don't know the real ratio of fail:success for politicians, managers or policies, as nobody collects or quantifies those data. I'd guess that the failure:success ratio is probably 1:9.

When I began writing this post, I thought of asking you to name your favorite managers and politicians, but such a listing would neither help people in other jurisdictions nor give an objective standard of performance.

Instead, perhaps you can suggest how some politicians or managers have designed or implemented policies that can be reproduced elsewhere.

Moving along, let's remember that the greatest harm comes from policies or practices that:
  1. Cost too much money than better alternatives;
  2. Divert behavior from the "right" to the "wrong" road;
  3. Direct water to a less socially valuable use; and/or
  4. Result in direct and visible failure.
Note that the last outcome is the one we see most often, even though the other failures are either more costly in aggregate or precursors for later failure.

As an example, consider the billion dollar "third straw" project in Las Vegas, a pipe that will allow Vegas to take water from Lake Mead when it's nearly empty. That expensive project does nothing to reduce demand or increase supply. It is literally a cynical, "race to the bottom" means of keeping Vegas grass green for a few more years, until the water level drops below its intake.

This, and other examples of impending or unfolding failures are easier for people who ask the "and then what?" will be the implication of any given policy.

Consider these examples (one for each of the practices listed above):
  1. San Diego is building a desalination plant for $1 billion to "meet demand" that could be reduced by a slight increase in water prices;
  2. Farmers are given subsidies to install "high efficiency" irrigation equipment while they continue to unsustainably overdraft groundwater;
  3. States allocate water to favored locals instead of either marketing the water within the state or allowing cross-border trading; and
  4. Water utilities with revenue equal to less than 50 percent of their costs cut back on safety and maintenance spending.
Bottom Line: Lots of managers deserve an A for success. Those who are getting Bs (or worse) need to be encouraged to work harder at meeting the needs of their communities.

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