Five Years After Act 10: Looking Beyond Fiscal Impacts

Today is the fifth anniversary of the introduction of Act 10, a bill and event that permanently changed Wisconsin politics and government. The Wisconsin State Journal has an interesting series of quick takes on the anniversary that are worth reading. It is fair to say that I am fascinated (ok, maybe a little obsessed) with Act 10 and its ongoing legacy. This semester I am teaching, for the third time, a course I developed on Act 10. I keep waiting for the topic to go stale, but thus far it never does. Why? Several reasons I think.

First, the enormity of Act 10 cannot be understated. Tim Cullen’s book, Ringside Seat, does a good job of explaining how radical a departure the whole political event was from Wisconsin’s history. Those of us who saw the protests firsthand can speak to how strange and different the whole affair was. Politically, the impacts of Act 10 will be felt for a long time, people just do not forget thousands of protesters, recalls, and dramatic changes to union power and influence.

Second, the events surrounding Act 10 are well documented. My class watches videos of all the most dramatic events, they are right there on YouTube for everyone to see. I find the ability to watch history first-hand allows students to understand the tensions, divisions, and silliness of the Act 10 battle.

Last and most important, the impacts of Act 10 are just beginning to be understood. There is obvious pressure to look back five years and ask, did it work? I think it is way too early to ask that question. A colleague and I are currently in the field surveying village board members and city council members on their opinions of Act 10. My preliminary conclusion is that Wisconsin is still in the political phase of Act 10.   Liberal officials tend to think Act 10 hurts employee morale, did not save money beyond the increased employee health care contributions, did not increase innovation, and generally hurt local government. Conservative officials are much more likely to take a positive view. This tells me public officials are still viewing Act 10 through a political lens, meaning, it is too early to understand the management impacts.

I recently published an academic paper entitled Governing for Results on a Post- Collective Bargaining Wisconsin School Board that explored some of Act 10’s potential long-term impacts on public management. I wrote this paper because I feel strongly that Act 10 redefined the relationship between public employee and management in ways that need to be studied and better understood. In the article I discuss some anecdotes on changes school boards are making to compensation and merit policies. Many local municipalities are doing the same thing. I also argue that the consequences of poor public management are heightened in a post-Act 10 Wisconsin. It is really easy for managers to turn to a union contract and simply go through the motions as dictated by years of bargaining, it is much harder to develop a new public-sector culture where performance is maximized through mutual respect, performance, and leadership from both public employee and manager. In that respect Act 10 could end up being revolutionary, or, a complete disaster. To ensure Act 10 is not a disaster, it is imperative that Wisconsin MPA programs adjust to this new reality, and that government invests in leadership programming (as recommended in this 2011 Wisconsin Policy Research Institute report).

Right now a lot of the discussion on Act 10 is, in my opinion, a bit lazy. The direct fiscal impacts caused by increased employee contributions are easy to understand, important for local governments in times of decreased state support, but really not much of a reform. The real legacy of Act 10 will be determined by future management innovations and performance in local and state government. If innovations and performance gains materialize Act 10 will have been worth it. If they do not…well, then it was a whole lot of trouble for nothing.

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