Let’s Run Government Like a Business!

Last week at a government meeting something very familiar happened. Someone at the meeting made a quiet aside about how a certain action of government would never be tolerated in the business sector. Several people nodded their heads in agreement. I had to shake mine.

First off, I get it. People use what they know as a benchmark, and sometimes government can be incredibly frustrating. When I began in the public sector I felt (and continue to feel) some of the same frustrations. Things can be maddeningly slow. Bad ideas and bad opinions seem to get the same level of consideration as good ones. There are times where process seems to take precedent over outcomes. And my personal favorite, in the public sector I find myself doing things that are, to quote myself in moments of frustration, “stupid.”

The thing is, however, the very things that frustrate me about the public sector are the things a democratic society needs. Things move slow for a reason. Making rash decisions without allowing time for public feedback and expert analysis can lead to unintended consequences that alienate citizens, i.e. the owners of government. In business a major decision would not be made by a CEO without proper consultation with stakeholders. The difference is public organizations have a heck of a lot more stakeholders, and hence more formal processes by which to consult with them.

Now about those bad opinions. I am fond of telling my students that we all give up some treasure and freedom to be part of a governed society. You own a share of government that has the same value as mine. Perhaps I think my opinions are more informed than yours. Perhaps my opinions are objectively more informed than yours. It does not mean my share of government is worth more than yours. We should hash it out via public debate and civic engagement, not by degrading democracy.

And process is important to ensure that our government institutions are stable and equitably serving all citizens. Creating a process that is transparent and applied equally to everyone codifies the equal share of government idea. My formal interactions with public organizations and institutions should not differ from yours because of who I am or who you are. Process and policies serve to promote equity. It does mean our policies and process are perfect (they are not), but they serve a purpose.

Finally, in regards to the stupid things government does. It is up to us, scholars and practitioners, to be honest about what is actually stupid or redundant, and what serves a legitimate purpose. If I am being honest I would put the stupid to useful split of things I find stupid to be 40% stupid 60% useful (which means its probably more like 20% to 80%).

So no, government should not be run like a business. Government is more complicated, lacks the profit motive, is value-driven, and structurally committed to serving the paradoxical desires of all citizens. In other words the public and private sectors serve different purposes and one should not be run like the other. But something tells me the calls to run government like a business will continue.


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