Our governor made headlines and drew friendly fire from his own party last month when he was quoted as saying, “middle management of the state is about as corrupt as can be.”

That those with jobs in middle management would take the comment personally is all but unavoidable. As state Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta, who became their public defender, said, “to call them morally depraved — look it up — is demeaning and inexcusable.” And Sen. Katz is certainly correct. To imply that state workers were being dishonest in their work or taking bribes amounts to an accusation that should be the first step in a judicial process not a throw away line at a pep rally.

And that implication is unfortunate because there are other meanings of the word corruption that are not so easily dismissed as extreme, outrageous and not worthy of a moment’s serious consideration. Look further down the list of meanings, and you find “debasement,” “putrefaction,” “decay,” “rottenness.”

I realize that it is difficult to think of our governor as a melancholic prince wandering the ramparts of his castle late at night ruminating on possible reasons for what’s rotten in Denmark. Nor does he readily bring to mind a Graham Greene anti-hero wrestling with his conscience in the web of an international intrigue amidst the putrefaction of a remote tropical outpost.

Yet both of these images, I am convinced, provide better descriptions of the man and the problems with which he is wrestling than that of a “shoot-from-the-hip bully shouting that all state bureaucrats take bribes.” Corruption is not as simple as we would like to think. And focusing solely on easily dismissed accusations of bribery distracts from more subtle forms of what Friedrich Nietzsche called “innocent corruption” that grows like mushrooms “in all institutions where the brisk air of public criticism fails to circulate.”

In the private sector, from Henry Ford to Steve Jobs we have lionized the innovating entrepreneur who invents new products, brings them to market and, as a consequence, creates jobs, even new industries. But, except when the new jobs are located overseas, we tend to forget about the old jobs lost, the old businesses shuttered. The history of economic progress is a process of creative destruction. And the vast majority of the creation did not originate in the businesses ultimately destroyed. Microsoft has spent billions trying, unsuccessfully, to turn the profits from its Windows business into “the next big thing.” It’s hard — perhaps even unnatural — within the confines of a big organization that has churned along doing what it does relatively successfully for years to innovate. One doesn’t have to say that its employees are “corrupt” to conclude that the institution is “decaying.”

And yet, decaying is precisely what too many of our public institutions are doing. They’re becoming less efficient, less relevant and too expensive. As Maine’s population grows older, and, in many of our rural areas, smaller, its taxpayers simply can’t afford the schools, town halls, hospitals and, increasingly, even the roads we’ve accumulated. So how can the very people who’ve worked to keep them operating, nearly always diligently and honestly, be expected to behave differently?

They can only when we create the incentives to do so. Only when we the taxpayers, the public who is to be served, step in and suggest better ideas — and reward those who implement them successfully. Examples abound. Every three years, the city of Saco engages Pan Atlantic Group to conduct extensive interviews with a random sample of residents asking about the quality of municipal services. Results are tracked over time and used to reshape annual budgets in an empirically based effort to better serve “the customer.”

Code for America is a loose affiliation of computer programmers — self-described “hackers” — whose mission is to “improve the way governments work better for everyone using the people and the power of the web,” to build what they call “open data infrastructure” and “a modern civic technology.” Popularize: Build Your City is a web-based platform that “shares the power to build new places in your neighborhood with local residents like you.”

These and other initiatives are examples of how to bring not just “the brisk air of public criticism” but the nurturing air of new thinking into our public institutions. These are the efforts we need to heal the corruption that will otherwise destroy them.

Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at:

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