Monday, December 21, 2015

And good will toward – government?

Everyone knows the adjective form of "good": Good tidings. Good cheer. Good grief.

But there's the noun form, too: The condition of good or goodness. The common good. The greater good.

So we ask today: Is government any good?

To be honest, that's a silly question, considering the schools and roads it enables, the old-age pensions and medical care for those without the means. Still, with the anti-government drone so prevalent and blaring: Well, what good is government?

Here's some: Over the last four years homelessness among veterans has declined by 50 percent nationwide. That's right.

Credit goes to Housing-First, a program administered by Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro. In cooperation with the Department of Veterans Affairs, it employs vouchers to get homeless veterans into long-term housing and can be used to combat homelessness in general.

Castro told that ongoing subsidized housing for these veterans, rather than fostering dependency, is a stabilizing condition that allows veterans "to help take the responsibility necessary to improve their lives," whether their needs are employment, education or job training, drug or alcohol treatment, or mental health.

Of course, the best way to have fewer homeless veterans is to have fewer wars, particularly the elective, speculative type. (That government-as-the-problem thing.)

But what about  simply solving problems? What about putting good minds behind doing the right thing?

Through the end of January we are in the enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act, and a lot of Americans still remain in the dark about the requirements and the benefits.

A team of very smart people enlisted by the Obama administration went on a test-marketing spree to see which of several letters to qualified citizens made them more likely to sign up for health coverage. The objective: to stop wasting effort at missives that don't pay off; to get people to get with the program.

The work of that team is getting recognized for doing good things, not only in dealing with citizens but cultivating smarter behavior by bureaucracies. Officially it's called the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team.

I hate that name. It sounds like mind control, or at least it would lead Sarah Palin to claim so. What it is better known as is the Nudge Unit, which fits it perfectly.

The Nudge Unit figures out incremental ways to govern better. After a short run, the results are very good. Not only has the Nudge Unit come up with common-sense means of doing things better, but the New York Times reports the ideas could save "millions and possibly billions of dollars."

An example was a simple message programmed into computer printers that reminds federal employees to make two-sided printing their default setting. With its success thus far, one simple flourish could save up to half a billion pages of paper a year across the government, the Nudge Unit estimates.

Another wrinkle was to text-message just-graduated high school seniors about the next steps needed to enroll in college. The messages nudged up enrollment figures by 3 percent. That may not sound like a lot, but tell that to the families involved. The cost? Almost nothing.

Right now a lot of college students are fearing lifetimes saddled by debt. Many don't know about a federal program to set payments at 10 percent of one's monthly income – paying it off, but more slowly. The Nudge Unit has proposed an email campaign to bring this matter to students' attention. A targeted effort has shown great promise.

This is called the public good. We can do better. As the program to find homes for homeless veterans shows, government can do good.

Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:

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