Let's Run Government Like a Business -- Or Not

Americans routinely decry the inefficiency of government. Why, they ask, can't it be run more like a private sector company? To road-test this idea, let's think about one of the best run, most admired private sector companies in America: Google.
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Americans routinely decry the inefficiency of government. Why, they ask, can't it be run more like a private sector company? Indeed, privatization -- the decision to contract out government operations to private, profit-making firms -- is the darling of many who have given up on government doing things right or just assume that the private sector can do it faster, better, and cheaper.

To road-test this idea, let's think about one of the best run, most admired private sector companies in America: Google. With about 54,000 employees, Google is the size of many federal agencies. It was ranked number one on the 100 Best Companies to Work For by Fortune magazine in 2012. Known for its innovation, its rapid growth, and its leadership, Google would seem to be a model for a well-run government agency. Fast on its feet, staffed by eager and smart young people, able to get things done right -- what could be better?

If government were to emulate Google's management and leadership, especially the way it treats its workers who, after all, are the ones who get the job done so well, what would it do? First, it would house three to four government worker teams in a well-furnished and naturally lighted building, in glass-enclosed space so they would have maximum interaction and can get lots of sun. It would also allow them to bring their dogs to work. It would provide free food 24/7 so they can keep working and eat healthy whenever they wish. How about a free haircut (better than wasting time getting it done somewhere else during the day) -- or a free massage to relieve stress? Or what about space and equipment to play ping pong, pool, foosball or video games, all provided because breaks and human interaction spark creativity? And then it would give each government worker the freedom to spend up to 20 percent of her or his time working somewhere else -- their choice -- in the organization on some other project that they think will benefit the agency, thus encouraging both innovation and cross-fertilization of people and ideas. It would also give them a free ride from home to work and back again because that saves time in commuting and lessens the hassle and loss of energy in their day. It would also provide government workers a concierge team, to help with such tasks as getting the oil changed in their cars, dry cleaning, and DVD rentals.

If all of these services improve productivity and quality at Google -- and they clearly do -- couldn't they do the same for government? Of course, we will never know. If any of these things were even contemplated as employee services and perks in government, the public would not stand for it and members of Congress would be lined up to hold hearings demanding why taxpayer dollars were being used to coddle feds.

So let's just stick to pay. If we want to treat government workers like Google employees, we would pay them at the top of the pay scale for comparable jobs to keep the best and the brightest at work. We would give them regular bonuses and stock options (perhaps U.S. Savings Bonds?). But then, of course, we don't do that -- and don't want to -- either. Federal worker pay has been frozen for three years, and the Office of Management and Budget has banned most awards and bonuses for government workers due to sequestration. And the President has decided not to issue any Presidential Rank Awards to top federal executives, the first time that has been done since the awards were created in 1978.

This is not an argument to create Google-like services for government workers. It is an argument to reality-check our rhetoric. The truth is, we prefer our government workers to be treated just OK, not like Googlers. We don't want them housed in beautiful space and given perks that make their lives easier. Government is the servant of the people, and we would find it unseemly for our public servants to be treated so well.

If you work for Google, you get something else that you don't get if you work for government: the public's respect. Google employees are admired, treated with dignity, and are seen as models of twenty-first century workers. Government workers rarely get this level of respect and admiration, nor do they expect it.

The reality is that employees -- not systems, processes, or technology -- are the single most important factor by far in any effort, government or private, to make an organization productive and effective. So how we treat them matters. But in this key respect, we really don't want to run government like a business. That's OK, but we should stop talking as if we do.

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