Government Innovation

Contracting out, privatization, government mistakes: all of this is covered in this informative article from New Geography.

An excerpt.

“TV network MSNBC’s left-leaning commentator Rachel Maddow has opened herself up to ridicule by the conservative blogsophere over her advert featuring the Hoover Dam. The thrust of the spot is that “we don’t do big things anymore” but that we should. But critics say the dam couldn’t be built today due to environmental opposition to exactly these kinds of projects. Indeed many in the Administration and their green allies are more likely to crusade for the destruction of current dams than for the building of new ones.

“Both sides have their points.

“Building the Hoover Dam was not uncontroversial, to say the least. But it has proven to be beneficial to millions of Americans (flood control, hydroelectric power, recreation, and water for homes, farms and factories). Truly, it has allowed the desert to bloom.

“Public goods like dams are not excludable (their use is not limited to paying customers), so only government can provide them, right? Well, as economist Jodi Beggs points out, there is certainly a case to be made for private ownership of seemingly public goods. The questions to be asked are:

  • Do the benefits to society of these projects outweigh the costs?
  • Could private enterprise provide this good or service if the government did not undertake the project itself?
  • Is there a compelling reason to ensure that everyone have access to this good or service?
  • If so, is there a way to ensure access without wholly providing the good or service?

“In support of the case for private ownership Beggs cites Dingmans Bridge, which provides a crossing of the Delaware River between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, one of the last private toll bridges in America. Ironic she should mention it, because for the past 40 years Dingmans Bridge was supposed to be deep under the water behind the Tocks Island Dam.

“The Big Dam that Never Got Built

“Although Tocks Island Dam was never built, 72,000 acres of land were acquired by the U.S.government, often by condemnation, including farms, homes, and businesses. Whole towns disappeared when people had to move away, including many historic roads and structures that featured prominently in the Revolutionary War. This land now constitutes the Delaware Water Gap Recreation Area, which I visited last August on my summer vacation. It was eerie, haunting, beautiful and amazingly empty on a warm summer’s day within a 90-minute drive from Manhattan (okay, maybe two hours).

“Many of the condemned homes, farms and buildings still exist, abandoned. As I drove through the area I could not help but think something has gone terribly wrong here, but what? Is it a story of government incompetence or good intentions gone bad? Or perhaps a story of NIMBYism run amok to throttle progress, development and future opportunity for future generations?…

What ever happened to Reinventing Government?

“In 1992 the concerns over government debt, deficits and unfunded liabilities were national issues (sad, ironic and maddening, isn’t it?). So strong were these concerns that they drove a Presidential candidate, Ross Perot, to the largest vote ever received (nominally and percentage-wise) by a national third-party candidate since the Bull Moose Party of Teddy Roosevelt. After Bill Clinton won that election – largely because of the votes Perot took away from George Bush – the newly-elected President would famously say, “The era of big government is over.” Oh, would that it were so.

“That same year saw the publication of a book by David Osborne and [Rancho Cordova City Manager] Ted Gabler, Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is Transforming the Public Sector. Oh, would that it were so. The most compelling concepts in that book (to me) were the privatization and contracting-out of government services – the transformation of government from the entity that provides services to the entity that makes sure needed services are provided.

“What happened? The concept of reinventing government is still alive, at least on the local and state levels; David Osborne is still fighting the good fight with the Public Strategies Group, but as he writes, “Reinventing public institutions is Herculean work.” And at the federal level we have had orgies of spending, debt and deficits.”

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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