At Somerset Elementary School in Chevy Chase, we had a wonderful before- and after-school exercise program for our kids. So good, in fact, that a parent wrote to the school district praising the program.
As a result of that letter, the Montgomery County Public Schools shut down the program and threatened to bring the teacher up on ethics charges.
Parents are fighting back — almost 100 have signed a letter of protest — and they may prevail. But however this small incident is resolved, it should trouble all of us, because it reflects something larger about what is wrong with how our government works.
According to county administrators who looked at the program, our physical education teacher might have been taking financial advantage of his position as a teacher by “tutoring” his PE students or, alternatively, he could have been giving participating students special treatment in gym class. None of this is accurate, of course. Roughly 125 kids took part in the program and, although there was a fee, there was also a “never say no” scholarship program. No child was ever turned away.
In my professional life as an entrepreneur, I am often frustrated by the red tape that plagues our system. Still, experiencing this as a parent gave me new insight. It isn’t so much the fact of regulation that is the problem here. Who could be against policies that prevent a conflict of interest and enforce ethical teacher conduct? Rather, it is the maddening bureaucracy that twists a reasonable policy into an absurd result.
That issue ripples through all levels of our government. There is obviously a big difference between health care, financial reform, tax policy and closing one children’s exercise program, but there is a common thread nonetheless.
As our bureaucracies have expanded, they have grown oddly less effective. The people operating at the highest levels of the system seem disconnected from the people they are supposed to help.
In the private sector, of course, we are no stranger to administrative bloat. But we have strong incentives to beat it back. One of the fastest ways to reinvigorate an enterprise is to ensure that the most resources are targeted on activities closest to the customer.
Employee morale is often not driven by more money but by empowering people to make a difference in the lives of customers. Most of us work at least partly because we want to help people, no matter what our profession.
When Nordstrom was shaking up the world of retail, it famously had an employee handbook that consisted of one rule. “Nordstrom Rules: Rule #1: Use best judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.”
Our PE teacher did something entrepreneurial because he cares about kids.
I can’t imagine our county administrators feel good about shutting down a successful program. I can hear it in their voices when I speak to them. Yet these highly trained administrators are trapped by their own system and rules. I suspect a lot of people in government feel the same way.
I hope we find a way to keep our kids’ fitness program, but regardless, maybe it is time for all of government to think about a version of Nordstrom’s Rule #1.
Shrinking overhead and empowering good people in the field has been a winner in private business. Maybe it can work for government, too.