|Here’s a dirty little secret: The Post Office isn’t so bad.
Although it’s the rhetorical emblem of all that’s wrong with government, the postal service is surprisingly dependable and efficient. Letters get delivered by the millions and very few are lost.
Where the Post Office fails, as most government enterprises fail, is that its dynamic is antithetical to creativity, invention and risk-taking. Government enterprises seldom innovate, except those in the defense arena and collateral endeavors like space exploration. The Bonneville Power Administration, a federal agency, does its job well enough, as does the FAA in controlling aircraft. It just wasn’t in the Post Office to create FedEx.
In Washington, and across the nation, politicians repeat often and loudly that the worst outcome of any new endeavor would be for the government to run it. To hear Rep. Louis Gohmert, R-Texas, tell it, the government is a vast anti-American conspiracy. Recently, he took to the House floor to protest against a government role in health care and claimed that anything government-run means socialism to him. And socialism, according to Gohmert, is the slippery slope to totalitarianism.
In Washington, there’s a more ambivalent attitude toward the bureaucracy. It’s not an abstraction to Washingtonians; government workers are neighbors, commuting companions, friends and family.
But that doesn’t mean that Washingtonians are taken in by it, or that they believe the government should grow more.
If you know enough government workers, you know that they’re not created equal; neither are their departments and agencies.
The Department of Defense is an archipelago of islands of success in a sea of contradiction and confusion. But the agencies, like Housing and Urban Development and Labor, are resigned to a level of ineffectiveness, often doubtful of the virtue of their own missions.
The challenge is to know what is best left to government or to the private sector.
Attempts to privatize support sectors of the U.S. military (base maintenance, security, fuel, etc.) have led to scandals at every level for companies like Blackwater (now known as Xe Services) and KBR, denounced in Congress and the media. Privatizing war is a questionable undertaking.
As often as not, government is lumbered with failing or failed businesses for political or social reasons. Amtrak is front-and-center among these and General Motors may join the group of government orphans — too important to fail and too rickety to succeed.
Finally, there is no political will to tackle the thorny issue of productivity in the bureaucracy. Politicians complain of government in the abstract and praise “hard-working men and women” in specific agencies.
Sadly, it boils down to hiring and firing. It’s hard to get hired in the government because of rules and rigidities and even harder to get fired.
The reverse applies in the private sector. Business operates on incentives, but also on fear. Fear is missing in government employment and it shows.
Government is not as inept as conservative politicians like to say, any more than CitiBank and AIG were models of corporate governance.
Some things organically belong in the government’s sphere and others far from it. Today’s question is: Where does health care fit? –For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate