COUNT ME OUT

If only we could inject some accountability into government service, all of our problems would be solved. We wouldn’t have endless discussions about cutting waste. There would be very little inefficiency. Only about the same amount as private industry can tolerate without going bust.

But no one has yet found a way to enforce productivity in government work. You don’t produce in a private business, your co-workers complain, and yer out of there. You don’t produce in a government office, your co-workers complain and…

Because there is no accountability. In fact, waste is built into the system. Government officials are tasked with spending their entire budgets, no matter what. That way, politicians who disagree with Congress’ vision must still carry out their duties. But it sure messes up the whole “your bonus is conditioned on how much you money you made for the company” thing.

In a private business, if enough employees screw around, those who are still producing can’t support the rest. In government service, enough employees screw around, you raise taxes so that you can hire some more employees to carry the workload. There is no connection between productivity and revenue.

True, not every tax that is proposed is passed. But with the continual threat that teachers, firemen and policemen will be laid off if revenue isn’t raised, most of them make it past the ballot box. I’ve never heard that a failure to raise taxes will end up in managers or secretaries or customer service reps being laid off, because that doesn’t resonate with voters. But that is where most of the inefficiency lies.

DSCN0511Rarely are there too many front linemen on a job. Usually they are spread as thin as they can go. The public face of an agency shows best when it shows the need for more workers. When the front line is stretched to its limit, the department head looks good, looks like an able manager of insufficient resources. As a manager, you can’t have too many workers standing around—it looks like you have too many resources, and your budget for the ensuing year will be cut accordingly. It’s the back office, where no one is checking, that usually ends up more fully staffed than need be. And they are kept busy, kept full-time busy, pushing papers and attending meetings.

The same thing happens in private industry, except that, when the organizational structure gets top-heavy, upper management can slice through it with a machete, when downsizing becomes the best or the only solution. That’s much more difficult to do at the governmental level.

Where it operates, government is the only game in town, so how do we know when it’s too big? If a private company gets over-stocked on personnel, an upstart will swoop into town, with fewer employees, lower overhead, and more modern technology, and start picking away at the behemoth. The larger company must quickly adjust in order to survive, slashing employees and costs until its bottom line evens out.

That sort of correction can’t occur with the government. There will be no smaller, nimbler Motor Vehicle Department riding into town, challenging the larger, more established DMV to a duel. There will be no fighting for customers, no last man standing, bruised and bloodied but unbowed. So how can we ever know when the DMV is too large? How much inefficiency is the right amount?

That right there may be the reason that workers go postal, but they don’t go FedEx. There is constant pressure on government employees to be efficient, but there is no barometer for inefficiency. There is no feedback to tell them how much of their day they can screw around and still keep their jobs. In the private sector, the pressure would increase or decrease, depending on market factors. There is no market in government. The only barometer is whether the voters will opt for increased taxes. And their willingness to contribute more to the government has nothing to do with the efficiency of its workers. It has to do with the tenor of the whole economic climate.

It is entirely likely that the government will need more money to do the same job at exactly the same time that the voters have decided that their wallets have been stretched to the maximum. In private industry, that sort of situation would cause many of the companies in the same business to fold, leaving only the strongest or best suited to carry the load. In government, there is no such litmus test.

Government is what it is. Managers can vow to cut the size of their departments, but how do they know how much is the right amount to pare? Cut too much, and you can’t get anything done. And now you’ve told voters that you can get by with fewer employees. Voters aren’t likely to be willing to re-fund your department when you discover two months down the road that you did need those fifty extra people.

So, how do we introduce accountability into government? Do we compare those jobs that are currently being done by both government and the private sector (e.g., education, delivery of packages and letters, construction, etc.), and require the government to operate within the parameters set between the most and least productive of the private companies in that industry? Do we restrict the business of government only to those things that cannot be provided by the private sector, and determine the budget for those operations on a case by case basis?

It is the lack of accountability, along with other factors, that causes many voters to decide that the only responsible solution is to make government as small as possible, figuring that, no matter how wasteful government may end up being, at least it’s small enough to not make much of a difference to taxpayers.

Unfortunately, the government employees will still be under the gun to be more efficient. They just still will not be able to figure out exactly how efficient they are supposed to be. True accountability remains a pipe dream.

4 Comments

Filed under Critical Thinking, Politics

4 responses to “COUNT ME OUT

  1. Don

    Victoria, have you ever heard of the old saying, “For every complicated problem, there’s usually a simple solution.” I realize the iceberg analogy is overused, but in this case I think it’s warranted. The tip of the iceberg is not the bureaucracy you discuss in your Blog; they are the 90% that’s under the water. The top 10% represents the elected officials that are supposed to take care of the 90%. And of course everyone knows, as educated voters, that we are responsible for electing the ten-percenters.
    The immensity of the problems you pointed out in your Blog can be seen when we recognize that there are a lot of elected officials that each and every one of us must keep an eye on. There are around 145,000,000 registered voters in the United States who have accepted the responsibility of electing 500,000 local, state, and federal office holders. Dividing the total number of registered voters by the total number of elected office holders would mean that 290 voters would be responsible for each office holder. So you see that’s certainly a simple solution isn’t it? However, few would disagree that it’s a simple solution that’s wrong.
    Why is it wrong? Living in Levy county Florida, I am responsible for 42 elected officials from the county tax collector to the president of the United States, and I know only a few of the 290 other voters who are supposed to help me pick the right one for the job. If I could read a report about each of the people I need to pick, it would move me from my common present category of “voter”, to the very uncommon category of “informed voter”.
    Imagine if I could go to a webpage, type in my address and it would not only return a list of the precinct, city, county, state, and federal office holders that I am responsible for, but a link to the Bloggers who are keeping track of the particular person presently holding the particular office that they are monitoring, as well as candidates vying for the job if it’s election time.
    The closest thing I might hope for to assure an unbiased outcome is that each official had at least two Bloggers reporting (i.e. progressive vs. conservative, Dem. vs. Rep., Right vs. Left, Christian vs. Muslim, up vs. down, hot vs. cold, etc. etc., you get the idea.) Considering the 42 people I am responsible for, I could keep up to date on their beliefs, values, actions and voting record.
    I haven’t calculated how many Bloggers would be needed to do the job of monitoring all of the elected officials, but I’m guessing it would be quite a few. But when you think of all the people out there with computers who are interested in helping their guy or gal get elected, I bet we would have more than enough.
    If the ten-percenters knew that we, i.e. informed voters, had our eye on them, they might do a better job of controlling the 90% that’s under the water that you talked about in your Blog.

    • Even if we all made the effort to inform ourselves about who we are electing, our input only occurs sporadically: every two years, four years, six years, however long the term. We may spend a lot of time exploring the candidates’ records and position papers, to determine from what has occurred what is likely to occur. Then, having informed ourselves, we cast our ballot. That’s all she wrote for the term of the office. We cannot possibly keep track of every decision made by every elected official, to make sure that he is still living up to his campaign promises. Each official has pretty much well carte blanche to act however he likes during the first three-quarters of his term, so long as he straightens up in the last act. Then we go through the whole process all over again. The incentive is to put on a good face, not to perform all of the underlying hard work.

  2. Don

    It sounds like you don’t think the system we have now will ever work. I think you’re right. The term for all elected officials should be 1 year. After that it’s a simple yes or no vote: a YES vote lets him keep his job, a NO vote kicks him out. If he’s a good guy he gets to keep his job forever, if he’s not he’s out in only a year. Of course you’ll have to believe, as I do, that there are more good guys out there then bad guys. Is the world we live in benevolent or malevolent? I guess that’s something that each and every one of us has to decide.

    • Your one-year term is an interesting concept. I do not think that public service should be a lifetime position, though. We all need a little dose of life in the real world every now and then. And I don’t think it’s helpful to have malevolent people working in the private sector, either. If we all put our heads together, though, maybe we can come up some workable solutions that will carry us down the road.

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