Government is not a business

(WARNING: Political post!)

I’ve spent the better part of the last 20 years working as a public servant. I’ve worked at a handful of government agencies for most of my career, and I feel like I’ve lived and breathed it for long enough to consider myself an expert insider. I’ve also spent a few years in the private sector, including a stint at a massive multi-national corporation. As we inaugurate a new president who campaigned under the premise that he could run the country better because he was a businessman, I felt that I needed to speak up on why I see this as a bad thing.

First, I freely admit that there are many processes that are similar between government and business. As someone who runs a very large IT infrastructure, I rely on good business practices to guide how day to day work gets done. I want to ensure that everything that I do is efficient and well managed, because when all is said and done, that makes everyone’s lives easier. Yet, sharing a desire for solid processes and practices does not mean that government and business are the same. The reason is that at the core, businesses exist for consumers, and government exists for citizens.

A consumer is driven by the motivation of value. A consumer is concerned with purchasing the best product or service for the lowest cost, balancing these two concepts to their advantage. There may certainly be some social altruism involved (i.e. fair trade coffee), but consumers will still measure this altruism by the amount of money they can justify spending on a product or service.

On the other hand, a citizen is motivated by the concept of community preservation. It doesn’t matter where someone falls on the spectrum of libertarian to socialist, the motivation still revolves around the community that surrounds the individual. Community motivation means that decisions are based upon what is best for the people involved in, and surrounding, that community.

Let me share a practical example. In my job I work for a governmental organization that manages all of the wastewater treatment in the metropolitan area. Wastewater is something that affects every single person whenever we flush our toilets. As a society we have decided that letting human waste simply flow into the streets is bad for our communities. It’s also bad for our health, food supply, and numerous other issues. Therefore, we’ve decided that we should develop sewers to bring our wastewater away from our communities and treat it before putting the water back into the ecological system.

It’s not cheap to do this work, and there are massive pieces of infrastructure involved in releasing only clean, drinkable water back into the river. A consumerist view of this endeavor would involve paying for our sewer system to funnel all of our wastewater away from our homes. We would all consider this a good value, as it gets rid of our shit (literally) for the cost of putting pipes in the ground. However, from a consumer value perspective, continuing to treat this water to make it clean enough to drink doesn’t make sense. It’s much cheaper to simply flush everything down the river, since the river will carry that wastewater to a different community. The cost is simply too high to be a good value for an individual.

However, a citizen perspective is focused on the betterment of the community. Not only is it important for a community to funnel it’s waste away from where people live, but it is equally important to not pollute the source of drinking water for other communities apart from our own. There is little consumer value in doing this, as once the waste is funneled away from our homes, we’ve achieved the purpose of flushing our toilet. Yet as citizen, we choose not to stop there, and we look at how we can ensure a better world for those that would be affected by our waste.

Many government programs don’t make sense from a business perspective. They benefit small groups of people and are paid for by people who could be spending their money in other ways. However, government is built upon the principle of being by the people, for the people, for the betterment of our society. The opening to the Constitution states:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

At no point in that opening does the concept of consumer value enter into the equation. The purpose of government is to provide for a society that is robust and whole. The purpose of a business is to attain wealth, while providing products and services at a good value to consumers.

As our country enters a new era of politics, let’s stop and remember what the purpose of government is. Big or small, a government is there to provide for a “more perfect Union” of our communities. We can argue about what areas of society should be our focus, or how laws should be carried out, but we can never argue about the need to look beyond the best value for our money to find the best solution to the community’s problem.

I pray that our new government doesn’t try to make itself look too much like a business, and remembers where it’s efforts should be focused. I worry when I read about proposed large scale cuts to programs like the National Endowment for the Arts, and how that loss will affect the quality of our communities, in order to save a few bucks. Government isn’t a business, and it should always stay that way.



Beer, running, and geeky things.

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