The question seems somewhat relevant this morning, only three days before a presidential election in the U.S. in which one candidate is proposing the same question to the American people as the question I heard from my entrepreneur friend.
Why do the principles of for-profit business and those schooled in the implementation of those principles not "fit" the model of either the organization or the purpose of government?
New Yorkers have watched this week as Citigroup lights in their corporate tower have remained on, while much of Manhattan and the surrounding burroughs have remained dark. That is because Citigroup is interested in "itself" and in its provision of back-up services for its own tower, and for the working environment of its own workers, not to mention the ancillary benefit that such "leadership" might provide to polish its public image among a darkened and saddened wider community. While Citigroup workers may well have made significant efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to their plagued neighbours, as individuals, and perhaps even as a corporation, the provision of the power, including the back-up generators for that power to light their tower were arranged and installed by and for Citigroup as a for-profit corporation. Citigroup, and all other corporations play by the rules and on the playing field of their industry, in Citigroup's case, the financial services sector, whose interests are often completely at odds with the purposes and the role of government.
On the other hand, the disaster evoked by the name "Sandy" struck hundreds of thousands of individual, families, corporations and institutions like hospitals, schools, churches and universities. Their individual and collective immediate, medium-term and long-term needs, based on the losses suffered in the storm, are not the purview of any single corporation, nor should they be. Those needs fall to the government, federal, state and municipal, in some kind of co-ordinated effort and funding formula to meet them. And that requires a completely different perspective, philosophic base, and organizational metric to accomplish.
We have book stores that offer various titles under diverse topic divisions, for an equally diverse reading public, where the library provides access to written works for all people, in the "public interest" without suffering the scorn of the toxic appellation, "socialist".
We also have other services, including sewer, water, fire and rescue, education of the children of all parents, transportation, police protection, building inspection, land use planning, park design and development....all of these services co-ordinated in what has come to be known as "city hall"...in both the literal and the metaphoric sense of that word.
Those services, if they were left to the private sector, would simply not extend to the outermost reaches of the community because they would prove to be "not-profitable" and thereby either not extended or cut following extension. And if they were to be operated on a "for-profit" basis, many citizens simply would not have access to those services, because the cost would prohibit that access.
Furthermore, there are state and federal guidelines, sometimes regulations and often laws within which the municipalities must operate, and the civic leaders must comply with those regulations, based in most cases, on the best interests of the abstract "public good" and not designed to apply to a specific piece of land development, for example.
Governments and their operatives, the politicians and civil servants, are expected to see a single request from a single ratepayer through the multiple lenses of:--
- what precedent is this setting?
- how does this request comply or fail to comply with our municipal plan?
- how does this request compare with similar requests in our archives?
- does this request foreshadow more of the same nature, providing an opportunity for leadership and a change in direction from our previous policies and choices?
- what kinds of responses have been generated in other jurisdictions when similar requests have been dealt with?
- what are the various perspectives of the people voting on this issue and how can those perspectives be brought in to the concensus?
- oh and by the way, what will granting this request cost the city?
In fact, ROI, or cash cost, or even the reductionistic "what will this vote cost me in lost votes next election?" have to be near the bottom of the list of criteria for making most decisions, if one is to serve her community's best interests. While accounting recruiting commercial advertising likes to point to "the meaning behind the numbers" the politician has to see more than a single layer of meaning and implication in all of the decisions, including the legal implications, the impact on the neighbourhood, the public mood and sentiment for and against such a proposal, the media's tilt on the issue, the history and culture of the community, and the kind of legacy both the council and the individual alderman wishes to leave.
In addition to the abstractions of rules, regs, etc. there is also a significant difference in skill set, in perspective and in methodology between a corporate CEO and a political leader; the former can decide and implement, without having to 'win over' his executives, his board or his workers, whereas the latter never works in a vacuum, and must always negotiate with both allies and opponents to achieve a balanced compromise, just as the next president and the opposition in Congress will have to do, in the lame-duck and following, in order to avoid the proverbial "cliff" from rendering the U.S. economy "on life support" should they not reach a responsible and reasonable compromise.
All of the issues in play on the municipal level enter the national stage, but in larger dimensions. Nevertheless, the perspective of the "public good" which cannot and must not be measured exclusively, or even primarily in cash cost, or even in ROI, or in cost-benefit analyses, must be the focus of the political decision-makers, not the profit of the city, the state or the country.
In fact, the Romney experience is literally antithetical to the needs, skills and perspective of one who wishes to make the decisions that will come across the president's desk, given the private corporate sector's avowed, deliberate and acknowledged commitment to profit, and to the return on investment (ROI) of its shareholders.
Voters are much more than shareholders, as witnessed yesterday in the reversal of the decision by the New York Mayor, after having decided to hold the annual NY Marathon, only to have to back down and cancel it, after the public uprising of scorn and derision demanding that the resources needed for the marathon be dedicated to the relief of storm victims.
When I had completed a fairly comprehensive outline of the differences between the operation of a for-profit business and the city council, where my friend wanted to start-up a newspaper editorially committed to the business model for council, he quietly commented, "I can see that city government is much more complicated than running a for-profit business and I will have to re-think my idea of a newspaper dedicated to that proposition of running the city like a business."
That is not to say, however, that government can afford to turn a blind eye to inefficiencies, duplications, over-lapping authority and responsibility, conflicting departmental responsibilities, the clash of political ego's that cost taxpayers too many wasted dollars. In fact, there is a legitimate need for a public's responsibility to be ever vigilant along with the local media, on how the political establishment is spending their tax dollars, with a view to the same questions posed above for the political leaders, and not exclusively on a cash-cost, or a ROI basis.