Perhaps “praise” is too strong a word, but I found myself mentally leaping to the defense of state government bureaucrats this morning as I read the latest installment in the News & Observer‘s fascinating series about efforts to  sidestep state worker’s compensation requirements.

The crux of Mandy Locke and David Raynor’s piece today is that an “inept bureaucracy” stands in the way of state agencies cooperating more effectively to catch evildoers and scofflaws.

The missed opportunities for enforcement are glaring:

• When the Industrial Commission encounters an employer who is paying workers under the table, it doesn’t inform the state Department of Revenue. The commission also has no policy or mechanism to alert its counterparts at the state Department of Insurance when it encounters an agent who misrepresented a workers’ compensation policy to a business owner.

• When the state Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division investigates a complaint that an employee hasn’t been paid appropriate overtime, no one flags the case for the state Department of Revenue to check on whether the business pays required withholding taxes.

• While the Department of Revenue gives the Division of Employment Security a list of new businesses, it doesn’t send that information to the Industrial Commission so it can check for workers’ compensation coverage.

• There’s little communication between these agencies and the State Construction Office or the Historically Underutilized Businesses program. Coordination could prevent businesses that break the law from working on public projects.

One suspects that Locke and Raynor expect readers to agree that much more coordination ought to be taking place. In fact, the article’s next paragraph quotes Rep. Dale Folwell, R-Forsyth, expressing his disappointment because “We just suck at synchronizing things that are supposed to be helping people.”

But this reader had a different reaction to each bullet point: Without a law in place dictating this notification or that consultation, why would we expect it to take place? Do we really want state government bureaucrats to take it upon themselves — without clear guidance from laws duly passed by the representatives of the people — to develop their own systems for compiling and sharing information about North Carolina business owners?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that the ideas presented in those bullet points are necessarily bad. What I am saying is that this type of government agency coordination deserves public debate. It would be much better for the General Assembly to hash out the pros and cons — including privacy concerns — of allowing these state agencies to “compare notes” than to leave that coordination to the unelected bureaucrats themselves.

Bureaucrats deserve criticism when they fail to do the jobs they are supposed to do. They do not deserve criticism when they respect the limits lawmakers have placed on their activities.

If we decide there’s a problem and that government can do something about it, the third critical question in the public policy debate — Should government do something about it? — must include a discussion about who plays the proper role in doing something.