Government Is Not The Same As Business

We often hear how government should be run like a business. I understand what people imply but also understand that these are not the same. The bottom line for corporate America is the profit line. Public Service needs to provide both effective and efficient service while minimizing its costs. The private sector can raise the price of its product or service to the consumer. The public sector can not arbitrarily decide to increase the tax rate or service fees to maintain its bottom line. How then should government, the administrative side, work like some corporation?

Many private companies have been poorly run, deceived the public and relocated or closed without regard for their employees or the public. The list is substantial including Enron, WorldCom, various automobile companies and financial institutions which nearly destroyed many national economies including our own. We don’t expect nor want our government services to behave in this manner anymore than we want corporate America to act this way.

People call for smaller government and claim government is the problem. I am not certain what that means. There are certain services which only the public sector can or is willing to provide, public transit perhaps the most obvious. We all acknowledge we need police, defense and similar protective services. These apparently would be part of the smaller government.  I am not sure how these government services are the problem. There are other services which become political issues as opposed to rational concerns. Regulation is always a major problem with views varying from none being necessary to being viewed as excessive. The political discussion aside as rational people we need to acknowledge that regulations are needed. The prior corporate references should reinforce that. Certain other services are necessary such as a local taxing agency, a court system, a public works agency for roads, traffic lights and snow plowing. Education to me is perhaps the most critical public good of all. Without an educated public this entire discussion is without understanding resulting in decisions based on emotion rather than reason. This allows the loudest voice to claim to possess the solution or the answer to all our concerns, just lead and I will follow. If we can agree that many government services are necessary if not essential, then where is the problem which leads to such opposition to government as we know it?

Public Administration and the public administrator are undervalued and often outright ridiculed, sometimes due to their own creation.  The performance and the opinion of our public executives may be disregarded in favor of the shouting voice by the least informed. If we do not trust or believe our public administrators as opposed to our politicians or other voices often seeking some political advantage, then what can we do to remedy this situation?

We need to return to effective and efficient government services as a starting point. What is the public perception of various services from their actual use of the service?  Many people have direct contact with the police and fire departments. Generally these contacts at least leave us with the agreed upon need for this service. The other government agencies may tend to create a negative image for many. People who deal directly with a building department, a property tax agency or a public works agency develop a more direct reaction and opinion. Their personal attitude may not question the need for the service.  Rather a negative reaction to the personal treatment they receive results in a negative attitude for the need for the service; for example the lines are too long and do not seem to move, the attitude of certain staff people can be poor or outright obnoxious, supervisors appear indifferent or absent. These same complaints can be found in many private sector operations. The difference is that for a public service we have no options. I can’t go to a different agency for the government service.  Because we are captives we fail to understand some people may be having a bad day on both sides of the public counter. Sometimes it is not a bad day but rather lousy supervisors and senior staff but no one wants to admit that particularly senior staff.

The problem continues up the chain of command. Oftentimes, in the public sector promotions result due to seniority. The promoted employee was one of the boys or girls yesterday and now needs to supervise, discipline, monitor and improve the system. It may be difficult to change today the system I was operating under yesterday and I may be unable to discipline my co-worker, friends. This problem permeates all levels and all forms of administration. For example at the local level the Council Manager, Strong Mayor and Weak Mayor forms of local government all have a political tie in no matter how professional we claim them to be. If the mayor appoints the manager or CEO equivalent, then the appointee may not be the best qualified but the best connected. In turn the manager appointees may reflect those he or she is most comfortable working with or most supported by the elected types who may or may not have a direct review of the appointment.

During the 1980’s public administration was a popular college program up to and including doctorates in a field that did not have many such degree holders in government. The popularity seems to have declined perhaps due to lack or interest or the sense that government was not the place to be. I believe also that many such degree holders in government came to realize that the best administrator does not necessarily become the top administrator. Perhaps also the attitude that the professional opinion in the public sector receives less regard by the elected decision makers and may even be ignored.

The questions in my mind are why try if your education and experience have little value to the decision makers and where is the support of the public and various public administration organizations? If the professionals can’t function professionally then why should the public expect and support proper government services? We can juggle the parts of the system all we want. At the end of the day it’s not the system that needs to change but people within it who need to change, if we expect the public perception to change.

Phil Ward

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