Public vs. Private Sector

The argument that government is not as efficient or as effective as private enterprise continues to rage on. I finally thought it would be worthwhile to offer my two-cents worth to the argument. Seeing how I work for the government, you probably think that I am biased towards it. I will admit that this is true. But please be aware that my arguments are based on experience, not on academics (although I reserve the right to use academics for reference). I’m not going to argue which is better to work for… that’s for the reader to decide. Rather, I will offer my arguments as to why I think that government organizations are generally actually more efficient than private businesses.

I’ll start with customer service. It would seem that since companies are trying to lure and keep customers, they are doing what they can to increase their customer service. You could even argue that governments don’t need to worry about customer service because many of their citizens usually don’t choose where to live once they’ve moved in. This is false. In fact, governments are very concerned about citizen-relations because they realize that citizens do have the means and option to move. Many of our larger cities have seen a decline in population in the last twenty years, while the suburban communities have seen an increase. Development in rural areas is an important issue. This is evident that governments are concerned about the people they govern. Yet private companies were the driving force behind the customer service charge, but that seems to have waned among some companies. I think I am especially upset about many of the large department stores. Many of these stores have had to deal with low employment, so they seem to have hired just about anyone. Yet they seem to miss the fact that they need to train employees on how to deal with customers. I’m sorry, but if I get some cocky 17-year-old guy that’s too busy speaking on the phone with his buddies to answer a couple of questions, I can easily find another store to patronize. I think many governments have realized this, so they have made efforts to become more in-tune to what their citizens want… but you still can’t please everyone.

The second complaint I hear about is the rigidity of government bureaucracies. Yet there is also the argument for equity and fairness. Max Weber argued that bureaucracies are the most efficient and fairest organizations around (during the 1920s). Yet I have recently seen more problems in the private sector in relation to this. The biggest gripe I have is that when I take an item to the store to exchange, they make me sit through this entire process of scanning in the old item, applying the credit to my account, then ringing in the new item. During this entire process, I have gone from one receipt to three… there are times I’ve ended up with seven (must be that new math). Yet government bureaucracies are doing many things to make life easier for their customers. I recently visited a Division of Motor Vehicles office to change my address. While there, I observed the operation. When you walk in, you read a sign that explains the process. First, you take a number from the machine, and you push the button for the category of your visit (licensing, vehicle registration, etc.). Second, you don’t stand in line… you sit. Who would’ve thought that people actually hate to stand on their feet for 20 minutes? Anyway, you sit and wait for your number to be displayed on a large electronic board. If you have a form to fill out, you can do so while waiting for your number to appear on the board. Finally, you are called to a counter where a customer service representative helps you deal with your paperwork. I even hear that they will be working on better id photos.

Third, when was the last time a government filed bankruptcy? Only two major cities (that I know of) have in the last century. Meanwhile, many companies are merging or closing down. Sure, you can argue that it’s the result of fierce market competition, but how many cities have to compete against the same conditions? How many people move out of the cities and into the suburbs? Many governments continue to struggle with budget deficits and other shortfalls, yet they seem to develop balanced budgets and continue to operate rather well. Companies that run into problems close branches (like some retailers), shut down factories, or even completely disappear by the wayside.

I haven’t mentioned accountability yet, have I? This is very important. When a company makes a mistake, the company begins to point fingers. This was pretty apparent in a recent automobile mistake. Eventually, the company accepted fault and paid the consequences. Government officials are much more accountable in this case. If an elected official makes a mistake, he or she usually gets elected out (well, we won’t discuss the conduct of a high elected official and his intern). My point is that there is a higher level of checks and balances between the public and its government than there is between companies and their customers. Warranties are useful in some cases, but they are usually limited and not heeded until after those limits have passed. Elected officials are out meeting their constituents time and time again just to continue to serve. That, I believe, is a high level of accountability.

Finally, there’s the cost of government. Governments are constantly increasing their services while simultaneously cutting their primary revenue sources, i.e. taxes. Businesses increase prices when the cost of production increases. Yet governments have been under this sad façade of cutting taxes while increasing services. The truth is that governments are really at their wits’ ends. They’ve fallen under the guises of strategic planning and benchmarking (and a list of other names), and they’ve really been able to pull off this amazing feat. Only lately have governments really felt the pinch of this. Companies, on the other hand, have been raising prices… some beyond belief. And prices can increase more than once a year… governments cannot raise taxes more than once a year due to the constraints of the budget. Where is the budget for companies? They do make them, but they are usually not as constrained to them the way governments are.

Thus I believe that the public sector does not receive its fair shake in the argument of which is more efficient and effective. No system is perfect, public or private. Yet it is difficult for me to argue one is better by comparing apples to oranges. The bottom line is that governments are not any worse than private companies… I dare to argue that governments have as many pitfalls as private enterprises, but with greater restrictions. On the bright side, I do like the fringe benefits that governments offer.

Road Rage

I don’t understand why people have this need to be so adversarial when they’re driving. Why is everyone in such a hurry? As a driver, I have noticed that many people are in a rush to push their vehicles to their limits. They zigzag through other cars, they pass in non-passing lanes, they cut off others, and they drive as if they’re driving at Indy.

I’ll admit, I used to be the same way. But then I realized that it wasn’t worth it. Your car ends up wearing out faster, your tires need replacing sooner, your brakes burn up more quickly… and for what, to get to that next red light so you can wait longer? Is that how you like to spend your time in traffic… waiting?

And who said it was ok to make illegal lane changes, illegal U-turns (a U-turn at a traffic light is not allowed in Wisconsin), and illegal turns? The last time I checked, it is illegal to turn from a left lane into a right lane (and vice versa). And you wonder why we have so many accidents in our intersections. And if that’s not enough, I’m supposed to read everyone’s minds when they decide to cut in front of me without a signal. Do you think I keep a crystal ball in my glove box? Do you keep one?

Furthermore, I really find it annoying when I am driving, I look up into my rear-view mirror, and there’s some idiot right on my tail. I don’t mean a few feet back… we’re talking inches! Do I look that good that you feel you have to get a better look? Is my car that impressive? It can’t be my bumper stickers, because I don’t have any. Try getting on my tail and see if you go any faster… I know how to slow down and really tick you off! And what about those people at traffic lights that just screech off when the light turns green? It’s like I’m in freakin’ Indy again.

Or worse, why don’t people pay more attention to what’s going on around them? I really love when I’m driving and I see the bright-orange construction sign that says, “Left lane closed – 1 mile.” So what does everyone do? They wait until the last freakin’ minute to move into the right lane. What really bothers me is when I’m at a red traffic light, it turns green, and the person in front of me doesn’t seem to either remember what a green light means, or where the gas pedal is.

Speaking of paying attention, there should be a law banning the use of personal phones in a moving vehicle. People on phones while driving seem completely impervious to what’s going on around them. Hey, those mirrors only show you so much when you want to make a lane change… I’m right next to you! And they drive so much slower. I don’t know about anyone else, but if the posted limit is 40, I’d like to go that fast so I can make it home before Nightline! Isn’t there a minimum speed limit as well? And what on earth is so important that you have to talk about it while you’re driving, risking life and limb, and possibly making it more difficult for me to get home in time for Nightline because you’ve turned over your SUV and created one ugly traffic jam?!? What’s more important, your phone call or getting home in one piece? And don’t assume that I wouldn’t know what I’m talking about… I had a phone once, and I nearly got into accidents myself while speaking on the phone.

My solution to everyone, then, is to use common sense while driving. It doesn’t take much to show a little courtesy and proper judgment. Think about this: You’re in a vehicle, all surrounded by 1/8″ steel, a couple of bars between you and the outside world, or a piece of glass. Is it worth risking life and limb just because you got a little upset, or because you’re in a hurry? And what happens if you crash? Your insurance rates jump, you’re out a car, and you risk having lifelong injuries. Take it easy out there… there are better things to do than to drive like an idiot (now hush up… The World’s Worst Drivers is starting… I need to get home to watch it).

MPA Program at UWM

The Masters of Public Administration at UWM has been one of the most rewarding programs I have had the pleasure of being a part of. I would like to take this opportunity to describe to you how this program offers students more than just a masters degree.

When I began the program in the Fall of 1998, I was somewhat overwhelmed at the idea of actually working towards a masters degree in a field that really interested me. There were some new professors, new students, and new ideas and concepts. It seemed like there was more work and more time that would have to be divulged into working for this degree. But I also noticed that some of the instructors and professors teaching us had practical experience in the field, and they were able to bring this into the course structure as well. Two classes that stand out are Municipal Management and Bureaucratic Theory.

The following Spring, I took a course in Policy Analysis. I was surprised to learn that the professor teaching this was at one time a legislator. Since this was a class on policy analysis, I learned that an actual policy maker (former Wisconsin State legislator) made the ideal instructor for this course. And taking a course in Intergovernmental Relations with a professor who specialized in the field made that class more worthwhile also.

The following Fall, I took a course in Physical Planning and Municipal Engineering. This was not a class taught through the Masters of Public Administration Department, but rather, it was a class that was taught through the Engineering Department. There was so much work that was involved, but the professor kept the class interesting, the material was really exciting, and the work really paid off. If anyone has an option to take this course, don’t even hesitate for a second… go for it! The following semester, I took a course in learning what a Geographical Information System (GIS) does. Another “hands-on” class, I learned how to really articulate my analytical and technical skills. What really surprised me were the students that sat in this class, which included business, geography, architecture, and even an engineering student. I would definitely recommend this class.

The bottom line is that the MPA program at UWM offers more than just your basic classes. They offer classes that are hands-on, classes that are not only informative but also intriguing, and instructors that show a genuine concern about their students. This last item, concern for students, is another thing I really want to discuss.

As an undergraduate student at UWM, I earned my Bachelors of Arts in Political Science. As a student in that program, I became a member of Pi Sigma Alpha, and was involved in the Epsilon Chi chapter at UWM. I even spent a semester as chapter secretary. But all we did was hold one big event in the Spring, and we had a recognition luncheon. Beyond that, I only saw my fellow students in class, assuming I shared the same classes. But it was different when I went to that first orientation for the Masters of Public Administration.

One of the big things that impressed me with the orientation was the commitment the faculty showed for the students that were in this program. They wanted to begin a student organization for those of us who were interested in public administration. This became the Public Administration Student Society (PASS). What was unique about this was that it was open to students who were interested in public administration, not just those that were in the program (although anyone in the program was automatically a member with voting privileges). As PASS progressed through the first year, we saw minimum participation. Many of us were very discouraged.

PASS’ second year saw a change in leadership. In the first year, many of the officers were involved in many other things, making it difficult for them to put forth much commitment into the program. As charter officer and secretary, I had more time to devote to PASS, since I did not have the various work-related obligations my fellow officers had. I became president in Winter 2000, and the new officers that were elected showed much more commitment and enthusiasm to helping this organization really move forward.

This past year, we have had a panel discussion with professionals from the field of public administration to help students work on getting their first jobs, and our Spring orientation was successful, with three alumni that came and spoke to us about opportunities and lessons in public administration, and what their degree helped them to achieve. We’ve also had some fun activities, such as attending a Brewers game, complete with (what else?) a tailgate party, and we’ve spent time meeting professorial candidates for the MPA program. And in July, we will join the Milwaukee Chapter of the American Society for Public Administration to tour the Milwaukee River on the Edelweiss Cruise.

What are the ingredients to a successful organization such as ours? First of all, you have a group of students who are concerned about this field. Let’s face it, we’re working on this degree because it is related to a field in which we will spend our lives working in. And a masters degree requires so much more commitment than a bachelors degree. Furthermore, the officers have goals for the events as well as the organization as a whole. Their commitment and time has really been a key factor in helping to propel this organization.

Finally, we have had support from the professors and staff. Our director has a genuine concern for the students, and he has been an important contact for all of our events. He continues to ask for student participation at many of these events, as well as other events that will help us continue to grow. Other professors in the program have also been very helpful in distributing materials and attending many of our functions. And now that we have support from a professional organization, we have the ability to network with the finest members of the field of public administration, including administrators in municipal government, state government, and non-profit organizations.

In conclusion, I just want to say that I am grateful to all of those that I have had the pleasure of knowing through the Masters of Public Administration, including students, faculty, and professionals. I know that other students will also have the opportunities I’ve had in this program to really get a true feeling about what public administration is all about. Anyone who joins this program will have many wonderful experiences in the time they spend at UWM, and these experiences will help them over time in the field of public administration.