Can we really run government like a business?

While there are elements of business that can be used to improve government operation, the two are fundamentally different, and we need to remember that neither can, or should, operate just like the other.

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about government operating more like business. This sounds good on the surface, and is usually meant to suggest that should government behave more like a business, it would be an improvement.

Government is fundamentally a collaborative effort of a group of people to do things we cannot accomplish individually; to provide services which do not function well in the private sector. We use a legislative process to debate and decide which course of action to take. This leads each of us to have to compromise in some way. None of us agrees entirely with all that government does. What we hope to achieve is government which provides a package of services that represents a fair mix for all citizens. Government differs from business in that it has a mandate to serve all citizens, not just a selected market.

One element of the business model which has served government well has been the focus on better customer service. Many governmental departments and agencies have implemented planning processes and customer service training which has led to better service to citizens when they interact with their government.

In addition, use of the business model has helped many governments to work harder at controlling costs. Both the State of Michigan and local governments have had to find ways to reduce services and accomplish their work more efficiently due to declining revenues in recent years.

The idea that we are just customers of government has contributed to a significant problem. Many in our nation view government as something apart from ourselves, like a company we do business with. When we take that approach, it is easier to justify not taking responsibility for any of government’s actions. Abe Lincoln said it well. Ours is a government, “…of the people, by the people, and for the people.” It is structured to allow participation through voting, attending meetings, and speaking with our elected representatives at the local, state, and national levels. When we take the customer approach, and don’t participate, it simply doesn’t work as well. Active participation by many citizens improves both the quality of government, and our sense of ownership.

Has government in America benefited from taking lessons from business? Certainly, but a business model should never replace citizen participation. Surprise a few elected officials in the coming months. Attend meetings. Learn about the issues. Listen to the experience and ideas of others. Offer your ideas and assistance. Improve government the best way citizens can: with your participation.

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