America has long had a “bandwagon” approach to policy; our penchant for simple solutions leads us into all manner of fads: the New Public Management, outsourcing and privatization, untested education “reforms,” and others.
For the past couple of decades, the answer to virtually every management challenge has been “privatization.” As I’ve indicated previously, there are times/situations where contracting out (which is what our version of “privatization” really is) makes sense, but thanks to our penchant for jumping on the bandwagon, government agencies have employed this method of delivering public services without the sort of rigorous analysis–or often any analysis–that should accompany decisions to turn tax supported programs over to private vendors.
Lately, however, citizens and public officials are beginning to recognize the downside of inappropriate contracting. A newspaper in North Carolina recently editorialized on the results of that state’s privatization of mental health services:
[A]ccess to services was confusing; services became unavailable to clients, and the number of people with mental illness who ended up in emergency rooms and jails significantly increased.
According to the Orange County Register, privatization’s consequences for Costa Mesa, California, were similar.
When the Costa Mesa City Council attempted to privatize large portions of municipal operations, it did so without conducting any analysis about whether its actions would save money – or whether it would cost more, which it did….
Southern California has provided fertile ground for other failed outsourcing initiatives. In the 1990s, Seal Beach thought it was on the cutting edge of local government privatization. The beach community managed to save about $30,000 in its first year of privatized jail services, and local officials were quick to pat themselves on the back for what they thought was really smart governing.
But what privatization delivered was two decades of lawsuits, two in-custody deaths, improper responses to medical emergencies, inadequately trained staff and a steady stream of violations uncovered by state regulators and health officials. Privatization of Seal Beach’s jail has resulted in so many serious problems that the city is now spending a reported $1.2 million just to start the process of bringing jail services back in-house.
The county of Orange’s most recent information-technology debacle provides yet another cautionary tale. After the county entered into a staggering $132 million contract with Xerox to upgrade phone and computer networks, performance by Xerox was so poor that the Board of Supervisors appears to be poised to sue over the broken promises and cost increases.
The article cites other examples, and notes that enthusiasm for contracting may finally be on the wane:
Across the country, governments of all sizes are rethinking the outsourcing of services as they discover its many unwelcome consequences, including lack of transparency, cost overruns, lack of competition for contracted services, and glaring weaknesses in accountability and oversight.
It’s hard to argue with her conclusion:
Services provided by public entities should be judged by what is best for the health, well-being, civil liberty and security of the public. Inserting a profit motive is an open invitation to graft and corruption and, more often than not, results in services that cost more and serve the public less.