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What if Government Officials Were Scrutinized Like Football Coaches?

Imagine a government as accountable to voters for its performance as football coaches are to the ire of fans and boosters.

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What if programs in state government received the same sort of scrutiny that many of us give to college football?

We pay the coaches a gazillion dollars, like an ancient tribe that celebrates a chief when the crops are good and kills him when the crops fail, installing a new honcho in the big house with the good food and all the creature comforts. The ruler stays as long as prosperity lasts.

In sports, the implicit contract varies. Some schools demand excellence. Some are just looking for a diversion on a dozen Saturdays every year. The coaches with the best deals are also the ones with the least tolerant subjects: in football kingdoms like Alabama, Texas and Notre Dame, the bosses are treated very, very well — until they’re not.

What if we ran government the same way? Treat the state’s head of education like royalty, and keep it going as long as education here is better than anywhere else, or at least excellent. Same with the prisons. And health and human services, roads and all the rest. If it’s worth all that money, it’s worth some attention. Give it a lot of publicity, talk about it on the radio and devote fan websites to it. Let people wail and whine like sports fans when things aren’t going well.

High dropout rate? Low SAT scores? A workforce that can’t write or make change? Then it’s the guillotine. High recidivism? Too many potholes? Long lines? Fraud? Botched vote counts? Pink slips all around.

How come Mack Brown’s head football coaching job at the University of Texas at Austin is the subject of open conversation after three disappointing seasons, and everybody else in state government is still living high after 10 or 20?

People love football and they hold it dear, and that’s why, in spite of lots of carping and moaning, we spend so much money and time on it. Brown’s salary tops the state employee payroll, at $5.3 million, followed by UT basketball coach Rick Barnes and then four doctors who head medical schools in Texas. The top 25 salaries are all at state colleges and universities, mostly administrators, doctors and coaches.

So here’s Brown, who finds himself in the blocks because he’s the top salary — and because the Longhorns’ football woes have lit up the talk shows and the online chat rooms.

The state’s chief executive would be an easy mark. But Texas voters have had several chances to soak Rick Perry in the electoral dunking booth, and they have instead given him their blessing every time. Besides, there are 8,476 public employees in Texas whose annual pay equals or exceeds the governor’s $150,000.

Voters hold elected officials accountable. If the state’s top lawyer loses a string of lawsuits, the people of Texas get to decide whether to keep him around. If the comptroller underestimates the state’s revenues and lawmakers have to cut the state budget as a result, that’s for the voters to ponder.

But those elected officials make up a small fraction of the state’s upper management. The two biggest parts of the state government — education and health and human services — are run by appointees and the people they hire. They’re loosely accountable to a governor who’s accountable to voters. But this isn’t a cabinet government, and appointees who won’t take orders can only be coaxed to quit or repent. The governor can’t fire them. He can make them miserable, and apply pressure where it’s possible, but that’s the extent of it.

The governor — this one, his predecessors, his successors — gets a little something in the bargain. Unless a scandal or a bad performance reeks of incompetence or criminality, the officeholder doesn’t get the blame. It falls instead on the agency heads and others who are hired by the appointees who can’t be fired by the governor.

Brown gets paid a lot. He’s been a great coach at UT. And he’s getting knocked around pretty hard by the sports fans and boosters who hold him accountable.

It’s tough, but straightforward. And it’s the exception for a top job in state government: his job security is directly connected to his performance.

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