ESSAYS FROM WEST OF 98: THE BUSINESS OF GOVERNMENT

By James M. Decker

Good management of government is on my mind today. This is written with local government in mind, but it applies to local, state, and federal government, and every level in between.

“We need to run government more like a business.” How many times have you heard political candidates or elected officials say that, or some variation thereof? Have you ever said something like that yourself, or thought it? I certainly have.

Government is often criticized as inefficient, bureaucratic, slow to respond to the people and reluctant to keep pace and transform with the world around it. This is not always accurate, but it can be. When we long for government to run like a business, we envision the business stereotype as efficient, profit-minded, customer-oriented, and quick to adapt to the needs of the world. Many businesses fall short of this image, but as a small business owner myself, this image is certainly an aspirational goal for business owners and managers.

Despite our dreams, government probably should not run exactly like a business. Simply put, the ultimate goal of a business is profit. Without a profit or outside subsidy, business will not survive. Certainly, some aspects of government operate with profit as the goal (or at least to not lose money): water and sewer operations and trash collection, among other things. Many government services, though, simply cannot be profit-oriented. Streets, parks, police, and fire response are necessary offerings of local government. If you attempt to manage any of these individual services with a profit goal, citizens would likely experience exorbitant costs, terrible services, or both.

But I realize, when we long for government to “run like a business,” we don’t long for literal, profit-oriented management of each government service. Instead, we just want our government to run in a business-like manner. We want efficient, customer-oriented operations that are responsive to the people they serve and the world around it.

Today, I encourage our elected leaders, government employees, and the people of our communities to examine our governments and ask not for the government to run like a business, but for government to serve their people in a business-like manner. Business cannot thrive if it does not serve its customers. The customer will eventually find another place to do business, or if there is no alternative, a competitor will pop up to better serve the customer. There is a long list of venerated American companies who eventually failed to serve their customers and then disappeared into the dustbin of history.

Make no mistake: government has customers. Government leaders should remember that its customers are its rate-payers, taxpayers, and voters. Sometimes a person or entity interacts with government through each of those prisms, other persons or entities only interact in one category, but each is a customer all the same. Government has an obligation to serve its customers or, like those once-great and now-defunct companies, government will suffer the consequences.

Customers pay a direct charge to receive services like water, sewer, and trash collection. Customers pay taxes to receive other services like streets, parks, libraries, swimming pools, and emergency services. If the customers do not receive service adequate for the price, the customers will respond. They will engage their right to vote and find elected officials who WILL provide suitable service. Or, like customers of a business, they can vote with their money and their feet. Government may find that inadequate service leads to businesses and residents taking their money and their lives elsewhere, to a competitor who offers better service.

Business-like government is attainable. And in fact, I dare say it is mandatory for future success of our communities. We live in a highly mobile, technology-oriented society. Our locals may tire of mediocre service and decide that they can live elsewhere, so they will. On the flip side, people can and do move to rural communities for quality of life. We should encourage this, but those folks will rightly expect business-like government services.

How is your local government? Is it run in a business-like manner? If not, how can you change that?

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James Decker is a lawyer, farmer, and mayor in Stamford, Texas, and the creator of the forthcoming “West of 98” podcast and website. He may be contacted through Facebook at facebook.com/james.decker. Listen to our podcast interview with James here.

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