Making Government Work (Better)

No matter what our concern, each of us has a stake in having government operate effectively and accountably, respecting legal rights while being creative and fast-acting enough to deal with public issues.

Some people say this means that government should be run like a business.  But government is not business.  Its bottom line is much more complicated than profit, its operations are subject to many more constraints, and it operates with far more public scrutiny than any firm could endure.  (For more on the differences, see the associated posting “Why the Public Sector – Schools in Particular – Can’t Be Run “Like A Business.”)  But there are a lot of business methods that the public sector can adapt to its own unique circumstances and use – needs to use – if it is to do its job.  Here are comments about a few of them – measuring performance, involving the public, outsourcing, and technology.


Edward Deming is supposed to have said that “what is counted, counts.”  We all know that there are many vital non-quantitative aspects of public action.  But Deming had a point.  Every department of every public agency should be required to organize a full staff discussion that identifies the most important work they collectively do in four areas:

  • Customer Service (responding to applications, complaints, or other public input.)
  • Functional Results (fixing pot holes, collecting garbage, maintaining office buildings, etc.)
  • Intra-agency Interaction (how quickly it responds to or processes and passes on inputs from other parts of the Agency)
  • Inter-agency Coordination (both Interactions, as described above, and ways that their work can support or reinforce the work of other agencies – for example the way building sidewalks reinforces public health, or school programs impact public safety.

Once these key areas are identified, each Agency – probably with the help of consultants who specialize in these issues – needs to identify ways to measure performance, and then (after a baseline-setting break-in period) to bi-annually set improvement goals.

It would be nice if some kinds of financial incentives could be established for departments that consistently beat their goals by at least 10 percent.  But given that we’re talking about the public sector it is likely that other kinds of recognition will be needed.

It would also be nice – and perhaps even possible in the public sector – to create a special team of consultants that is automatically sent in to suggest what needs to be done with departments that fail to meet their goals for three years in a row.

In any case, the list of work areas, performance goals, and most recent performance level of every department should be posted.  There should also be an explanation of why the goal was set where it was, how the measurements were made, why the actual performance level was at/below/above the target and what is being done to maintain or improve things in the future.  In addition, there should be a way for the public (including individual employees) to comment on all this information and make suggestions.

It might be possible to eventually move from performance measurements to performance-based (or function-focused) budgeting.  This variant of zero-based budgeting is supposed to help bring expenditures in line with goals and improve transparency about what results taxpayers get for their money.  There are many ways to improve the structure and presentation of government budgets.  But the problems involved in implementing a full-fledged performance-based system in the extremely complex public sector environment are simply too difficult to make this a worthwhile strategy.


Internet-based businesses have found popularized the idea of attracting and integrating customer contributions into the firms’ functions and products.  E-Bay and Craig’s List exist because some people put things up for sale and other make bids; the firms’ role is simply to bring the two together.  Wikipedia simply provides a structure for people to post information.  But each of us becomes part of a bank’s work process when we use an ATM, and part of the government’s work flow when we renew our driver’s licenses on-line.

Government agencies can benefit from extending the work process out beyond their organizational boundaries in a variety of ways.

  • Identifying problems needing attention (e.g. through easy-to-use complaint lines)
  • Reducing workload (and waiting times) by creating on-line application systems.
  • Measuring service quality (e.g. as part of the performance measurement process described above)
  • Issue exploration by creating a forum to discuss ideas & strategies that the city might use to deal with public issues.
  • Energizing public campaigns and strengthening civil society by creating a forum for people to share ideas about how to deal with non-governmental community and personal issues.  (This might also be done internally, as a way for public employees to help each other.)


Is citizen involvement just another type of outsourcing?  Yes, but there is a difference between outsourcing and privatizing.  The later involves turning public functions over to private interests, usually for-profit firms whose bottom line has only minor overlap with the larger goals of the government hiring them.  Not only is there a tension between the (supposed) greater efficiency of the profit-driven firm versus the added cost of having to earn a profit, there is also the delegitimizing impact of turning public functions over to commercial firms.

Privatization of our military brought us Blackwater; of controlling our financial system brought us an economic crisis, of health insurance and health care pushed hundreds of thousands of families into bankruptcy.   On the other hand, I prefer having lots of small security firms to expanding the police force enough to cover every need, and the efficiency of the privatized curb-side recycling collection process to the slowness of the Post Office’s mail delivery.  Perhaps, as government efficiency consultant David Osborne has written, one of the keys is dividing up tasks and incorporating on-going competition between public and private workforces.  Still, privatization is complicated and often produces less than its proponents claim.

Privatizing is one type of outsourcing, but there are other types that have a larger congruence of interests and values among the parties.  Many social services are now provided better, more flexibly, and at less cost by nonprofits than by government employees – creating something that management guru Peter Drucker described as the “third sector.”  Non-profits have their own organizational problems, but they are typically mission driven in a way that compliments (and sometimes is even more client-oriented than) the larger values of their government funders.  Citizen involvement is also outsourcing.  But rather than delegitimize the public sector, it strengthens democracy by better connecting residents with government.


Much of what I’ve already discussed requires technology.  From data collection to rapid communication to accessible publication, today’s digital systems are a vital tool.

But, as someone who has worked in both high tech firms and the state’s IT division, who has both helped sell software and served on the national board of Computer Professionals For Social Responsibility (, I know that tools are not solutions.  Making the public sector work better primarily requires vision, skill, and effective leadership – as well as selection of the right strategies and tools.


Some might say that all this begs the question of “Can government be made to work better at all?”   To which I’d add the question, “and why should we want it to?”

For Libertarians, the answer is easy – government can’t and we shouldn’t.  They want to privatize almost everything and then forbid government action which, they believe, only distorts free markets’ efficiency and impartiality.  While they campaign as tax-cutters, they are actually a type of anarcho-capitalist fundamentalism with a revolutionary agenda of dismantling most of the social structures created over the past several centuries to serve the common good.  But in my opinion, the alternative to an effective government is not anarchy – the self regulating activity of totally autonomous and freely acting individuals – but chaos and a brutal battle for survival that brings out the worst aspects human nature.

Therefore, for me – as for many others, including some moderate conservatives – things are more complicated.  Markets have inherent inefficiencies and a tendency towards monopolization.  Unregulated competition is as likely to lead to worker exploitation and consumer fraud as the opposite, as likely to push firms to externalize costs – such as pollution, noise, repairs, bad health impacts, and disposal problems – as to inspire responsible corporate citizenship.  Individuals need to aggregate their individual choices and desires in order to impact corporate interests; the government is one of the most legitimate and effective places through which this can occur.

And the survival of what remains of our democracy requires that the public sector have the ability to respond to citizen’s needs, to regulate the pursuit of private interests so that they serve the public good, to gain citizen’s confidence that their elected government is an effective vehicle for collective action.

So I, too, believe we need a radical change from the status quo.  Not to eliminate government but to make it work the way we want it to.

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