On Public Service and Trust: Aiming the Cannons

I hear from my DPA and MPA learners the following lament:  There seems to be a real lack of trust from the public for public servants these days.  Whether it is criticizing the DMV office workers who are off on furlough days or complaining about how much government is spending on services they deem to be pitiful, the public (the residents we serve) seem to hold public administrators in low regard.  Is the public aiming its’ cannons of criticism in the right direction?

Note that in the examples above, I specifically called out a couple of areas where the civil service worker does not have control over the outcome that has disturbed the member of the public.  The worker in the DMV office is told when to take furlough days to help reduce a state deficit; the worker in a government building is also probably not the one who passed the jurisdiction’s budget.  Those same workers, though, are the ones that the public complains about!

When I explain that I teach public administration, I am often harangued with comments that I should teach public administrators to operate more like businesses.  If government was run like a business, people will say, it would be much more efficient.  Government and its workers are irresponsible in terms of spending and inefficiencies that are rampant throughout all jurisdictions.

Those of us who work every day in this field understand why this cannot and never will be true.  There are some inefficiencies in our processes and programs, but so many of these have been forced into oblivion in the many recent years of reduced expenditures and scarce resources.  Government is the provider of last resort, and it has many functions that will never be taken over by a private sector provider because they will never be able to be profitable. 

Government is also a messy business.  The process of setting priorities, funding programs with designated revenue streams, using inadequate general funds to support massive service needs, limiting taxation via two-thirds majority voting and the like all contribute to the complexity of making things run smoothly.  When money is tight, it is sometimes amazing that government can run at all!

The public forgets too that government cannot raise the price on a retail item or introduce a new product line with the ease of a private business.  It cannot decide to eliminate a program or service that is mandated by the law, while a business could decide to discontinue a product line.  It cannot declare bankruptcy or shut the doors and stop providing law enforcement, public health, public works, transportation or other vital services when things become too tight.  To maintain a civil society, these services still need to be provided.

While there is much that government can learn from good business processes and businesses can learn from government collaborations, government is truly different.  Perhaps we all need to become instructors educating the public, our government agencies and the elected officials in how government functions.  When someone votes on an initiative that specifies a revenue source dedicated to only one program, it can take money away from other programs.   We are all vulnerable when government is vulnerable.  We need to take the aim of this cannon off this structure of civil society!

 By Yvonne J. Kochanowski, DPA, MBA, yvonne.kochanowski@capella.edu

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