April 1, 2020

Run the country like a business? Please don't.

By Mary Keyes Rogers | June 3, 2017

When it comes to running our government, I’ll take a career politician, non-profit director or government bureaucrat over a CEO-citizen every time. The oft-made campaign promise of “If elected, I promise to run this [county/city/country] like a business!” leaves me slack-jawed, dragging my hands down my face, and thinking only one thing: “No. Please don’t.” 

Oh, I can hear the detractors now, ranting that:

 … our elected officials need "real world" experience to lead a government.  

… they’ve never even held a job in the private sector.

… they don’t know what it means to balance a budget.

… they have no idea what it takes to create jobs.

 I say “Phooey.”

Most Americans lack an appreciation for the professions of political science and public administration. Yes, people really do earn degrees in these career fields. It takes a particular passion, talent, and unique skill set to actually run a government body. I’ve run my own companies, held executive management positions in nonprofit organizations, and managed both federal- and state-funded programs. These animals could be no more different from each other than a beer can, a bicycle, and a zebra. 

In my experience, I found government work to be excruciatingly frustrating and not a good fit for me personally, but I do have a genuine appreciation and respect for the people who have made government their chosen playground.

They work within a beautiful yet confounding system of checks and balances that are meant to frustrate any effort to overreach their own authority. The CEO of a privately held company has no place here; nimble pivots and intuitive decision-making are not heroic qualities in government. 

Consider managing government operations from the perspective of the mission statement, in this case, the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Yikes. That’s not just a tall order but one that suggests how delivering on one goal might undermine another. In business terms, it means multiple departments could be working at cross purposes. In government, it means the executive branch and elected officials will have a far more difficult time getting a “win.” Rarely is there a winning bottom line to point to that does not have a negative impact on at least one sector of people. 

People working in government work under a completely different model than private enterprise, and that’s a good thing. There are far-reaching implications for the actions taken by a single government branch or department that business people are not accustomed to concerning themselves with. Government is different. Trade sanctions against China, for instance, will impact our ability to request military assistance from China when dealing with North Korea. Commerce vs. defense. 

Managing Results
Business managers say, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Well, how do you measure Liberty? Is there a metric for Justice? Government provides immeasurable outcomes that stretch across the deliverables of our constitution. 

An example: When I directed a government-supported business-assistance program, our success was measured, in large part, by the number of new businesses launched and the amount of new capital invested in businesses we served — not by the business survival rate, profitability, etc. Was this helping or hurting the economy? Either way, it provided a metric that the business-influenced government officials required. Staff found it to be irrelevant to the actual impact we had on our client businesses and the local economy, but it was the primary measurement I was required to consider in reviewing program effectiveness. This is a prime example of a business principle imposed on a government-funded program.

Managing costs
Cheaper isn’t always better. For instance, reducing prison staff training and rehabilitation efforts and psychological services for inmates might enable private prisons to house incarcerated persons at dramatically lower costs, but the recidivism rate will rise, ultimately serving the market growth of the private company while increasing crimes against citizens.

Customer Service
We are not customers of America. We might consume products and services of government, but, like me, I’m sure that you consider yourself to be a deeply invested stakeholder. Don’t tell me to take my business elsewhere. 

Selecting Your Team
In government, you are forced to work with people that have been elected by voting citizens or appointed (and protected) by others. These people might not be the best candidates for their jobs. Doesn’t matter. Can’t fire 'em. In government, you must learn to be political to keep the system working. This is not always a bad thing.

Exit Strategy
When a business model proves to be unsustainable, the option exists to close the doors and paste a Going Out of Business banner across the storefront. The players disperse and find new gigs. This is not an option in government.

Although business and government can learn from each other, I maintain that the very premises of their existence are so fundamentally different that you cannot impose one’s principles on the other. Business principles work for business. Government principles work for governments.

Mary Rogers is a Traverse City-based business consultant, speaker, blogger, and podcaster. She also claims the title Government Geek. mary@experience50.com



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