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Mo’ Better Blues

February 29, 2012

The implicit social contract between government and the governed broke down decades ago for many Americans. As the electorate lost confidence in our political and appointed leaders’ empathy, integrity and wisdom, these leaders starting shifting attention from themselves to government employees.

At first, attention focused on whether government was doing things right. Increasingly, people question whether government is doing the right things. Our preoccupation has shifted from worrying that government was trying to do everything to wondering whether it can do anything. Many now question whether we even need government. And a good many more don’t care much one way or the other.

As we have traveled along this continuum from ambivalence to antipathy (and back), the public has rightly questioned both our purpose and our progress.

Many in power have framed public concerns in terms of two cardinal virtues: efficiency and accountability. And too many leaders have erroneously oversimplified this otherwise accurate prescription by translating it into the management mantra: “Do more with less.”

Anyone who has spent any time at all in public service has heard this mantra repeated often enough. Few find it soothing, even fewer find it inspiring.

The challenge for government is not doing more with less. The challenge for government has always been the same: How do we do better.

Any economist will tell you efficiency has nothing to do with less. It’s about minimizing losses, not inflicting them. An efficient economy maximizes aggregate welfare.

Welfare is far more a question of quality than it is a matter of quantity. Once you have enough, more makes less and less difference. Indeed, mounting evidence suggests more actually is less.

Because efficiency focuses on how much better off everyone is collectively, we need accountability to temper its application. Accountability without a sense of responsibility is retributive and irrational. As such, accountability demands equity, which focuses on increasing individual opportunity even if it means generating a little less welfare for all.

The challenge and opportunity for government is not in producing more for less. It is in maximizing aggregate welfare while promoting or advancing individual opportunity.

This is where things ought to get tricky, and does. Opportunity to do what?

The principal ideological and philosophical difference between those who support government and those who oppose it comes down to a difference of opinion about a single, simple expectation: Whether when given any opportunity people will look after themselves or others first.

This distinction should matter just as much to homeland security professionals as it does to politicians and ideological elites. How we operationalize “do better” depends very much on whether we assume individuals look to maximize their own opportunities or those of others.

When better assumes individuals look after themselves first, we have to worry about how far people will go to get what they want. We also have to worry what people will do to get what they need.

If we look after one another first, we have good cause to believe others will look after us. This eliminates or at least minimizes how much concern we should have about what people will do to meet their basic needs.

This still leaves us with the question of what people will do to get what they want. We cannot eliminate this concern for two reasons: 1) even someone with an altruistic orientation should reasonably strive to maximize gain, especially when the benefits are shared widely, and 2) one’s willingness to share will almost invariably vary depending on whether opportunities are expanding or contracting.

When things are good, people are in a better position to share. But to the surprise of many, they often do not.

As we’ve seen during the latest recession and long recovery, people will share even when (or perhaps especially because) it hurts. This may either be due to empathy or an expectation of future reciprocity. But whatever the reason, such benevolence can neither be overlooked nor taken for granted.

What then can we do to encourage renewed optimism in the capacity of government to promote if not do good by doing better? We can start by raising expectations rather than minimizing them. Instead of explaining what government cannot do, we should emphasize what it does better than the market.

To follow this up, we can show it’s not a question of quantity but quality that makes the difference. At a local level, this means less emphasis on response times and staffing and more on what we do to take care of people when they need help and have nowhere else to turn.

Finally, instead of arguing for employment conditions that give public workers more — more pay, more benefits, more security, we should emphasize the important part collective bargaining plays in ensuring equity and quality. Contracts bind both parties, not just management.

If we want to save the public service ethos, we need to start by sacrificing our egos.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. February 29, 2012 8:24 am

    Mark,
    Outstanding piece of writing! I think you’ve hit several “nails on the head” with your remarks. I really loved the part about not focusing the discussion on what government cannot do, but rather what it does better than anyone else. To paraphrase my friend and colleague, Janet Wilmoth at Fire Chief Magazine, we in the emergency services fields need to focus on telling the public what we do for them every day to make the quality of life better in our communities.

    Yes, we have to be concerned about how many firefighters are on a piece of apparatus because we know four is better than three, but the general public does not know or care. What they care about is does the truck or ambulance show up when they call 9-1-1. We need to get better at “painting the big picture” of the “downstream” affects of cutting engine staffing from three to two or eliminating entire fire companies, e.g., longer response times, more property or life loss, businesses closing down, higher insurance premiums, etc.

    Once again, great job on a very “meaty” topic!

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