A particularly disheartening feature of the world we’ve been living in since the 1990s is the assumption — widely held and expressed in many ways — that anything governments can do, private enterprise can do better. It’s not exactly a lie. There are indeed many things private enterprise can do better than government, but the generalization of that proposition to any and all government programs doesn’t hold water.
My August 12th (2014) entry in my Passing Scene column points — too cryptically, I’ve decided — to two examples of the misapplication of market principles to governance — one from a recent newspaper article and another from a study a student and I did a few years ago. The newspaper article is written by a competent journalist and is self-explanatory.
The academic article is a different matter,
not because I don’t know how to write, but because, in an academic article, you can’t just explain an interesting finding, you have to place it in a theoretical context, one which, more often than not, is less interesting to a member of the public than to a boffin — as the British like to call those of us who teach and do research in universities.
The problem that both articles address is the assumption, a staple of 21st Century governance, that the best way to get almost any job done is to solicit bids from qualified providers and give the contract to the organization that submits the best bid. That sounds reasonable: A bidding process is open to anyone who can do the job, and seems to ensure that work is awarded to the person or group most qualified to do it, rather than civil servants, or those who have cultivated good relations with civil servants or politicians.
So, what’s the problem? Actually, there are a number of problems, but for now, let’s just deal with one particularly important one. The delivery of such social services as immigrant settlement often requires co-ordination among different branches of government. Refugees, for example, may need food and clothing, help in family reunification, and language education, thereby requiring the services of different branches and levels of government.
In other words, in traditional government administration, the public servants dealing with the needs of refugees, who necessarily work for different government agencies, have to talk to each other and work together. That’s the most important thing that gets lost when immigrant settlement services are contracted out.
Anyone who bids for the opportunity to supply a government service, whether she’s employed by a company or a government department, becomes a contractor. Contractors are not allowed to communicate, either with competing bidders or with the agency calling for bids. Such communication constitutes either collusion or conflict of interest.
As my article explains in greater detail, reducing a social service to a business opportunity deprives deliverers of the service of much of the capacity they need to do their job really well. Government accountability and economy are laudable objectives, but the reduction of a service provider to a business is, in many cases, a poor way of going about it.