What government needs is sound business leadership

And lots of privatization, of the functions the private sector can always do better and cheaper than government.  Which is all the functions, right? This sorry mess doesn’t prove anything by itself, but it’s right up there with nation-building in Iraq as an illustration of what can happen when a bunch of Babbitts win an election and unleash the magic of competition and sound business thinking on stuff they’re no good for.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

11 thoughts on “What government needs is sound business leadership”

  1. At the same time, it’s based on a Daily Mail report, so I’m not exactly willing to take the more “flavorful” examples at face value (as opposed to the security shortage, which is documented). But the Daily Mail would not be above taking a single anecdotal example (such as a trainee falling asleep at a training session) and then claim that it is a systemic problem.

  2. The security contractor gets a bit of sympathy here. In December they were handed orders to increase their number of guards “five fold”. So that is 9,000 to something like 50,000 if I’m understanding correctly. Hiring and training that many people in half a year for just a couple week gig sounds like a tall order.

    1. Sympathy for the request, not for the bad judgment in accepting it. And handing out “orders” like that is diagnostic of not understanding the difference between actually creating value and just getting stuff off your desk, thinking you did same when you have told someone else to spin straw into gold.

  3. I liked Boris Johnson’s “it will be better than 1948” defence. Talk about shifting the goalposts.

    My many accounts, Mitt Romney did a good job sorting out the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. It’s the sort of work a Vulcan is suited for: an icy rationalist with zero emotional investment in the project. Not so much running a country.

    Most of the blame goes to the British government and the IOC for continuously upping the security paranoia out of nanny-statism and hubris respectively. Typhoon jets patrolling overhead, rooftop SAMs: it’s got out of all proportion to the threat. Why should what little is left of Al-Qaeda attack the Olympics, which are a minor popular entertainment everywhere? If you wanted to take revenge on Britain for the war in Afghanistan, you’d blow up some more buses first.

    1. What kinds of government aid did Romney get with the 2002 Olympics? I had understood that there was considerable help from public funds in making the games succeed. Since the Republicans routinely denigrate government, it would seem that the Dems have a chance to use the 2002 winter games as an example of how things work best when guided by an attitude that says that we are all in this together, not by an attitude that bad-mouths the government as its default position.

      I have not yet heard this brought forth in any political ads.

      1. It isn’t Labor Day yet, and Rmoney [sic] hasn’t started campaigning on his success in “rescuing” the Salt Lake City Olympics. After seeing the latest Obama ad (it’s running here in Ohio now), I’d be willing to place a bet that the ad pointing out all the nasty government aid that was forced on Mitt is in the can. I don’t know enough about Rmoney’s rescue effort to know if he went with hat in hand asking for government assistance. I hope he did.

  4. Yes, people in government are angels who seek only the public good. Magically, when people take government jobs, they become disinterested even towards themselves. Socialist governments don’t push taxpayer money to giant private interests, only crony capitalists do that.

    Not. Crony capitalism and everyday socialism end up in the same tyrannical hole. Seems like someone already thought about.

    And at least this incompetent security contractor can’t coerce people like the incompetent government-run TSA. Government is like the private sector, except government can take your property to enrich large developers, legally kill you without trial, and all manner of other coercive acts.

    We’re better off with the private sector. They bungle no less than government, but they can’t make you do business with them.

    Oh, wait. Maybe we need limited government, too.

    1. I think Michael’s point is simply that government does some things better than business and business does some things better than government, and that in either case the market/government oversight will not magically provide you with the best solution but that you still need to actually put in the hard work to solve the problem.

      In this specific case, Britain has a long and inglorious history of randomly privatizing and nationalizing stuff in the hope that this would improve things. The results have been (predictably) all over the map.

      Privatizing security functions is a particularly thorny problem on top of that, because security personnel may need to perform certain activities in the course of their duties where it can be highly problematic if a private enterprise is authorized to perform those [1].

      [1] Not that the government-run TSA is exactly covering itself in glory, either. But I don’t really want to know what a privately run version of the TSA would look like, especially since they’d just be implementing government specs with little regard to passenger satisfaction.

      1. This is a good topic: “government does some things better than business and business does some things better than government.”

        I might change the subjects somewhat: “What things are best left to free markets and what things are best left to government?” (I was tempted to use ‘bureaucracy’ rather than ‘government’, but the former has too many negative connotations even as it’s more accurate.)

        A discussion around that question would be useful and interesting.

  5. Sometimes I wonder what fraction of people remember the buzz when our first CEO/MBA-President Bush was assembling his Cabinet of Wall St. wizardry.

    The biggest and most tragic irony of his Presidency was that nearly every major error boiled down to mismanagement and group-think (the moral errors of torture & related tactics were also tainted by mismanagement as well).

    1. Exactly. The idea that government should be run as a business has a bloody and sordid history. It’s the history of Mercantlism, government run for profit. It’s a ridiculous notion on its face.

      Government is force. Gaining profit from force is properly called extortion.

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