Tchaikovsky Sounds Funny: Book Review: "Making Government Work"

Is this where I put in key words such as sex, lesbians, vampires, Christopher Lloyd and others things to which this blog do not pertain, but by putting them here, I may get hits from all the Christoper Lloyd lesbian vampire fans (and you know who you are)? This is the primarily humorous and occasionally rambling writings of Leon Tchaikovsky, humor writer. Enjoy.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Book Review: "Making Government Work"

Tchaikovsky Sounds Funny

If you are a collector of obvious statements that then fail to connect proposed solutions to the stated problems, this book is for you. Perhaps if you are interested in learning how politicians can use a large amount of time to say very little, you may find “Making Government Work” insightful. Otherwise, avoid this book.

The concept of this book is intriguing. Take some of the most recognizable names in American state and local governments, from Rudy Guiliani to Richard Daley, from Jeb Bush to Tom Ridge, and ask each to analyze their experiences in privatization. What results is a series of glorified press releases. The book is neither an honest presentation of the debates over privatization, as only one side is presented, nor a useful discussion on privatization. Little meaningful insight into privatization is presented.

What emerges within the book are grandiose declarations of the need for privatization and how great the privatization programs each implemented is doing. Very little data is presented. We are expected to take each public official at their word that they are doing a good job. Perhaps many of their programs have been successful. Yet the lack of honest evaluation makes their claims suspicious.

Tom Ridge starts off the book with good but obvious generalities: government must be driven by customer demand and government must adopt a culture of innovation. He then jumps to the conclusion that the “customers” of government “demand” privatized services. Crucial intermediary links between the two are lacking.

The book would have done better to present analysis of whether and when public entities can deliver public goods more efficiently and effectively than can the public sector. The book could have explored whether there were other alternatives within the public sector which could allow the public sector to more efficiently and effectively deliver its public goods without having to turn it over a private party. Finally, when privatization appears useful, we should examine whether there will be any negative effects from possible diminished public input and possible long term cost increases as the private venture needs a profit margin. This is the type of analysis that is required yet not mentioned in this book.

The book argues that privatization is needed to counter the recent large growth in state government. Yet, instead of analyzing why this growth occurred, the book immediately concludes this growth is out of control and needs to be curbed. Perhaps some growth is excessive. A more proper analysis would observe a.) the Federal government’s recent “devolution” has transferred more responsibilities from the Federal government to state and local government, something, incidentally, most state and local governments heralded at the time and b.) government has become more proactive in recent years in providing public services, from increased police protection to improving education, something the public heralded at the time. To ask for growth and then recoil in shock when we realize growth has occurred is contradictory. To assume all this growth has been wrong is incorrect, unless you have a libertarian ideology. What would have been more useful would have been to examine this growth and try to determine which is proper and which is wasteful.

Many of the authors, including Governor Ridge, state public managers should look at government as more like a business. It is not appropriate in thinking in terms of placing business managerial concerns (such as showing a profit) in front of providing quality public goods. If public managers operate with bottom line considerations, financial considerations can lead to employee layoffs, decreased employee morale, and reduced public services. The bottom line considerations may be met, but the initial purpose of the public services may be defeated.

The book presents useful advice from the Council of State Governments. Governors and public managers should strive for quality, quality may be assisted through employee participation, chains of command should be reduced, and customer satisfaction is a most important indicator of quality. Yet, the book takes this advice and concludes, without any backing evidence, that privatization is how this advice may be implemented.

What data is presented is questionable. Governor Ridge claims he is saving $7.3 billion. He lists his accomplishments as providing disaster relief funds electronically, putting campaign finance information on the Internet, introducing email and voice mail within the Insurance Department, creating a telephone reservation system for state park spaces, etc. These are all good ideas. Yet, they can be created through any properly designed system allowing new ideas to be accessed and implemented. Indeed, many of these same improvements have occurred in other states.

Other accomplishments listed by Governor Ridge, such as reducing environmental regulations, are more controversial. Does less regulation create any potential environmental harm? There are two sides to this claim of success.

With early data on privatization conflicting, with some results indicating progress and others forewarning of greater than expected expenses, this book is noted as a good collection of what public executives approving of the recent movement towards privatization thought. Beyond that, though, this book has little more to add.


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