THE BLOG
06/13/2011 09:03 am ET | Updated Aug 13, 2011

We Need to Respond to the Attack on Public Service

Having taught management to future public managers for about thirty years, I don't pretend to be objective on the importance of government and public service. I believe that every American should be frightened by the profound and intensifying attack on government and public service. I started teaching and writing on public management during the Reagan years, and the attack on government has been escalating for each of the past three decades. With a slight pause for the first two years of the Clinton and Obama Administrations, conventional wisdom has portrayed the free market as the answer to all our needs and government has been seen as some sort of disease.

I agree that there are legitimate debates about the role of government and the mix of public and private roles in our economy and society. There are also issues related to federalism. I find the federal government often too far removed from the realities of day to day America -- a problem easily remedied by increased reliance on local governments operating on the front lines of service delivery. We also need to learn how to make all of our organizations more cost effective and sustainable. This is a problem in both the private and the public sectors. But our national public policy dialogue is far more concerned with justifying ideological biases than coming up with pragmatic solutions to our daily problems.

I have a secret to tell the ideologues in both the Congress and the media. Despite the fact that you make your living off of it, that war between the communists and the capitalists ended a few decades ago. In case you didn't get the memo -- both sides won. The "red" Chinese embraced capitalism (to put it mildly), and state welfare agencies and safety nets have persisted along with a government role in promoting economic development.

Capitalists are starting to understand that mass poverty and unemployment is politically destabilizing (see, politics: Middle East region). Communists figured out that people work harder and more wealth is generated when individuals are rewarded for their success and punished for their failures. All of this is obvious to anyone paying attention, but the ideologues still dominate the conversation and the agenda.

As entertaining as this can be, my concern is that we are delegitimizing public service (a special thanks to those fabulous role models Elliot and Anthony), and failing to engage in the important and difficult discussion of the proper balance between public and private, and between community and individual. We are so busy fighting the last war that we don't seem to understand that the next one has already begun.

I am not referring to a shooting war, such as the very real one underway against terrorism, but the equally real global economic war. The economic powers of the 21st century will be those that figure out how to develop a productive and sophisticated relationship between government and the private sector. America is capable of that sort of relationship, but we seem to be forgetting that this nation's great wealth was built on the marriage of public and private sectors.

In case you don't agree, think about the role of government in agricultural extension -- making America the world's bread basket. Or recall the public sector's leadership in building our transportation infrastructure -- from the Erie Canal to the interstate highway system. More recently, we can point to the Defense Department technology spin-offs such as the personal computer and the internet. In my home city of New York, government worked with the private sector to build the mass transit, water and sewage systems. New York's government also built public housing for half a million people, a public university system, a wonderful park system and a public hospital system. Starting with the Koch Administration and continuing today, the city government has developed a sophisticated relationship with local non-profits who now implement most of the city's social welfare programs.

In an insightful piece of reporting in last week's New York Times, Jim Yardley wrote about India's booming city of Gurgaon. This is a city that has developed by working around a dysfunctional public sector. According to Yardley:

"Gurgaon, located about 15 miles south of the national capital, New Delhi, would seem to have everything, except consider what it does not have: a functioning citywide sewer or drainage system; reliable electricity or water; public sidewalks, adequate parking, decent roads or any citywide system of public transportation. Garbage is still regularly tossed in empty lots by the side of the road.

With its shiny buildings and galloping economy, Gurgaon is often portrayed as a symbol of a rising "new" India, yet it also represents a riddle at the heart of India's rapid growth: how can a new city become an international economic engine without basic public services? How can a huge country flirt with double-digit growth despite widespread corruption, inefficiency and governmental dysfunction?"

Yardley describes the power, transport, security, water supply, sewage and waste management issues faced by the corporations and individuals operating within this city. There is little question that in the long run Gurgaon will need to build a public and collective response to these needs in order to ensure cost effective, competitive basic services.

Cities in the United States do not approach the level of dysfunction we see in Gurgaon, but if we continue to disinvest in public infrastructure, destroy public education, and belittle the work of government, we could end up in a similar place. We already have a problem attracting the best and the brightest into public service. Their peers often see kids that want to make the world a better place as fools or suckers. Those that manage to persist and follow their passion for public service tend to focus on nonprofits rather than government.

Meanwhile, many of our roads, bridges and schools are falling apart. We see New Jersey pulling out of the construction of a rail tunnel and other governors turning back rail construction funds to the federal government. States are closing parks and pools this summer. America's program to send humans into outer space seems to have come to a halt. Our ability to come together on national and community projects is buried in the backwash of anti-government rhetoric. The great national project of this century should be an effort to develop a smart-grid, renewable energy system to provide clean power for a growing economy. That project is not even on the national agenda in the United States. Perhaps it will be invented in China instead.