One of the things getting collective panties in a snarl this week is the possibility that Betsy DeVos will be confirmed as Secretary of Education on January 31. Central to the debate is the old idea believed by many more right-leaning folks, including DeVos, that government should be run like a business.
On the face of it, running schools or the government like a business sounds great. Successful businesses are so because they have optimized workflows, cut operational costs and risks, and, most notably, increased revenue. One of the crucial ways you do that is by identifying Key Performance Indicators (KPIS) and implementing a rigorous system to measure them. You then use the data to make informed decisions.
As astutely pointed out on Tuesday, January 24th’s episode of Marketplace with Kai Ryssdal, it is impossible to implement a direct parallel to government because the central theses of each system are diametrically opposed. Government is driven to serve the people and promote the welfare of society, while business is built to increase wealth and power of individuals, not (inherently), society. And because of these differences, the methods by which these two systems function don’t support integration.
“There are all these rules we put in place because the government has to have social goals that the private sector does not. And in business, it’s easy to measure success: the bottom line. In government, you have social goals which can be measured a million different ways by different people who don’t even always agree on what goals are,” noted Marketplace.
Equivalent CEOS within government still have multiple bosses—congress, the president and the people, to name a few—who they are legally accountable to and have to disclose their processes at the drop of a hat if so asked. Or at least that is how it is built to operate. Businesses don’t have to justify anything they don’t want to except to large shareholders.
This administration and many of those who voted for Trump operate under the myopic if not misled assumption that “moneymaking is a transferable skill,” as pointed out in the Jan. 21 issue of the Economist. For some, it may be, but it is not a rule.
There are certainly portions of the government can be improved by rules and practices of the free market, but similarities do not justify wholesale adoption.
The other side to this coin is the joy with which some people greet the nomination of thirteen political outsiders to cabinet and cabinet-level positions by President Trump. Yes, sometimes people within government are corrupt. But so are some people in business. The great benefit to politicians is that, excepting the president, at practically every juncture of their career advancement they must disclose their finances, contributions, relationships, and undergo hearings and mass evaluations for fitness of office and conflict of interest. So, say what you want to about Jeff Sessions, but at least we’ve seen his tax returns and a bi-partisan, sworn investigation of his actions.