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.
Rarely 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.