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New commission needs
to be careful
SC Statehouse Report
JUNE 22, 2003 - - WorldCom. Tyco. Global Crossing. Enron.
The mere mention of the names of these four companies certainly
doesn't inspire confidence that the private sector is always right
and can do things better.
But if you listen to a lot of politicians around South Carolina
and the nation talk about government, you'll hear the continuing
theme that government needs to be run more like a business.
Listen to what Gov. Mark Sanford said a couple of weeks ago when
he appointed a special commission to focus on improving management,
accountability and performance in state government:
"This commission is all about breaking down the current structure,
checking out the moving parts and coming up with a plan for putting
the engine back together so it runs smoother and more efficiently.
Beyond asking 'how does this work,' I'm particularly interested
in this commission asking 'why does it work that way' and ultimately,
is there a better way of getting the job done.'"
The rhetoric sounds good. Who, for example, could be against getting
rid of waste, saving money, making government more accountable and
But if you go beyond the rhetoric and take the purpose of the new
Governor's Commission on Management, Accountability and Performance
to its logical extension, you can envision the real possibility
the commission could make recommendations to encourage more privatization
of government roles and, perhaps, some elimination of government
It's a dangerous, slippery slope upon which commissioners will
Why? Because, quite frankly, government is not a business. There
are some functions that you might not want the private sector doing.
There are some things that government does that are, by their very
nature, inefficient but necessary.
For example, most people would prefer that governments run police
and security functions, not private security firms. Most would prefer
that government do the job of housing prisoners, fighting fires,
picking up trash and building roads. There's also a public service
function in government that requires it to educate youths, protect
the state's natural treasures, keep the waters and air clean, and
ensure disease doesn't spread.
Certainly, it would be more efficient for a hospital emergency
room to be open only from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. But people can't choose
when they're going to need emergency treatment and lots need it
outside "normal business hours."
In short, the state has serious obligations that require it do
provide certain functions. State government doesn't develop lists
of things it is going to do out of the blue. It exists to do the
will of the Legislature, which has over the years enumerated agency
responsibilities and outlined its priorities.
To the governor's credit, it appears at this early stage that the
commission is focusing on finding efficiencies and ways to avoid
duplication. As spokesman Chris Drummond explained, the commission
is going to look at things like why the state's three major universities
and an Aeronautics Commission all have aircraft. Might it not be
more efficient to have one central state agency that deals with
airplanes needed for official business?
One would hope the commission won't find much waste after three
years of devastating budget cuts that slashed most state agencies
by 20 percent.
Still, it's wise to look at ways to save money and become more
efficient. But the new commission should be cautious in making recommendations
that go too far and seek to get rid of government. That may not
be in the public interest.
Just because something may not look perfect on paper doesn't mean
there's not a public need for a function. The private sector doesn't
always do things better. Just remember Enron and company.