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Saturday, March 06, 2010

What's wrong with the public sector

I read this comment on Crosscut and I just have to share it.

Here is a link to the original article. It was about the (lack of a) Republican party alternative to the state budget.

The comment came from Stuka at 8:44pm on Thursday, March 4. I won't quote all of it, but I absolutely want to share this part:
The fundamental problem with the public sector is not lack of taxes but lack of performance monitoring and improvement over time. Witness the public school system for evidence of the failure to monitor the quality of teachers, of teaching performance, of student performance, and of school performance. Same with the criminal-justice system: who is monitoring the quality of inmates produced by our prisons? The quality of justice by our judges and prosecutors? and the quality of policing by our police departments?

Unfortunately, we don't pay for outcomes, but for staffing levels at fixed salary levels. A secondary effect of good government seems to be sometimes adequate government. Maybe we ought to reward for performance instead. That will happen only when compensation is tied to performance and not taking up space in a bureaucracy until the bureaucrat can collect a pension for enduring the bureaucracy, a feat that may be quite difficult and challenging, but in and of itself, produces no output that citizens value.

I highly value the services that government intends to provide (unlike many Republicans), but am unwilling to pay (unlike many Democrats) for monopolistic and ineffective government bureaucracies that have no handle on how to be effective and efficient in what they're doing. This leaves me in a quandry since the demand for services is unceasing and the inertia of ineffective government is entrenched. Mostly I try to vote for anything that smacks of actual reward for performance, and vote against anything that looks like hoggish behavior (as in pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered).

I don't oppose teacher evaluations. I strongly support them. I don't know anyone who actually opposes them. People just want them to be accurate and meaningful. I want them to reflect the teacher's effectiveness rather than other factors that contribute (much more) to student outcomes. I also definitely want authentic performance evaluations for principals and central office staff.

More and more I learn that it is ineffective principals who stand in the way of real improvement and I learn that it is purposeless central staff who cause the budgets to bloat.

Business models don't work in the public sector because there are no real market forces, no profit motive, and no threat of failure. Teachers don't make more money if they attract more students into their classes, schools aren't businesses with shareholders who will see higher profits if they attract higher enrollments or potential losses from lower enrollments. There is no reward for higher quality and no penalty for lower quality.

We need to find a model that works for the public sector. I can think of some. I'm sure that you all can think of more.

More than that, we need to find a way to implement an effective model in the public sector. There can be lots of great ideas, but the obstacle will be those invested in the status quo who have the ability to block real reform.

10 comments:

seattle said...

Whose monitoring Metro and their bus tunnel? It will be a long time before I let one of my kids step foot into the tunnel. Inept security guards, and no cell phone service.

Charlie Mas said...

Since Rob mentions the bus tunnel, why doesn't the bus tunnel have public washrooms? Why aren't there businesses, like a newsagent, down there?

There's a space in the Westlake station, just down from the Pine Street entrance, that looks ideal for a little shop selling newspapers, magazines, candy, gum, and other sundry items. It would be a welcome addition.

SPS mom said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Patrick said...

I don't understand why so many people blame the security guards. Their contract and procedures said, call in trouble, observe, and wait for the police, and that's what they did. Any blame should go to Metro that made the contract.

ARB said...

worth reading:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/07/magazine/07Teachers-t.html?ref=magazine

seattle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
seattle said...

Huh?? I don't know how anyone can defend an entire crew of security guards that stood by and watched a teenager be beaten unconscious?

And lets forget security guards, and contracts for a moment - as a human being I would have done everything in my power to stop that attack, even if it meant jeopardizing my own security. I would hope that someone would do the same for my kid if he were in that situation.

I heard Gov. Gregoire say the same exact thing - you don't need the words "security guard" written on the back of a uniform to act when someones life is in jeopardy. You act as a human being.

Patrick think about whether you would feel the same way if it wee your kid being beaten in that tunnel? I'd certainly be angry at Metro for the bad contract, but I'd also be mad at the security guards, and any other adults, who stood there and watched and did nothing to stop it.

Back to what's wrong with our public sector - who's monitoring Metro? If they negotiated such a poor contract in which security guards have no responsibility or authority to act when a violent crime is in process then their president any any other responsible parties should be canned. Immediately.

gavroche said...

What's so great or noble about the private sector? Monopolies, bureaucracies, cronyism, obscene salaries, perks and bonuses for top execs while workers are underpaid, uninsured or lose their jobs to sweatshop workers overseas, deregulation and no accountability are all common elements of the private sector and have contributed to this fabulous 21st century economy that leaves us wallowing in the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression.

The private sector is full of corruption and industries of dubious distinction, from health insurance companies that won't insure those who need it most, to auto makers who historically have fought against seat-belts, airbags and recalls of unsafe vehicles because they would all cut into profits, even though people will die in the meantime.

Accountability and ethics are what's needed in both sectors; common decency and responsibility as driving forces instead of blind allegiance to the almighty dollar at all costs.

Charlie, this comment of yours surprises me. Do you realize you are parroting a talking point of the pro-privatizing edu reformers when you say: "There can be lots of great ideas, but the obstacle will be those invested in the status quo who have the ability to block real reform"?

Do you honestly believe that everything that currently exists -- ie. the status quo -- is wrong and needs "reforming"?

As an SPS parent I am morally and intellectually invested in the "status quo" of free public education that is not driven by market forces or a race for profit, and instead offers a teaching and learning environment that is collaborative, cooperative and nurturing.

I will take that "status quo" any day over "merit pay" that ties teachers to standardized student test scores, pits teachers against one another in a competition for bonuses, or sells our schools to private enterprises via charters.

So far I have not been impressed with the "reforms" I have seen in the Seattle School District that have been imposed by our Broad Foundation Superintendent (http://www.broadresidency.org/news/newsletters/1q2009/index.html) and rubber-stamped by a meek School Board.

Reform for reform's sake is as odious as the worst "status quo."

Lastly, watch out for the word "reform" and how it has been used in our national political dialogue over the years. "Welfare reform," "tort reform," and now "education reform" are primarily driven by those who want to dismantle the public safety net in the pursuit of private sector profits.

So many of these "reforms" may sound good on the surface, until you read the fine print and see who they are really helping and who they are really hurting.

Charlie Mas said...

gavroche asked : "Do you honestly believe that everything that currently exists -- ie. the status quo -- is wrong and needs 'reforming'?"

No. Of course not. That's why I never wrote any such thing.

As for "What's so great or noble about the private sector?", I can think of a whole lot of things. Maybe not noble, but certainly great. There are a whole lot of advances that never would have happened or never would have been broadly distributed if not for the profit motive.

Does some bad come with that? Of course. But the same can be said of the public sector. The public sector has its own share of monopolies, bureaucracies, cronyism, obscene salaries, perks and bonuses for top execs while workers are underpaid, and no accountability.

People are people, no matter who bankrolls their paycheck. As gavroche wrote: "Accountability and ethics are what's needed in both sectors; common decency and responsibility as driving forces"

We have plenty of examples of heartlessness and inhumanity from both sectors.

gavroche wrote: "I will take that 'status quo' any day over 'merit pay' that ties teachers to standardized student test scores, pits teachers against one another in a competition for bonuses, or sells our schools to private enterprises via charters." I agree. But I would prefer a third path in which we have some element of teacher compensation and retention based on the actual quality of the teacher's work without the errors that gavroche lists. I believe that such a system is not only possible, but easy to envision.

It is not unreasonable for an employer to expect an employee's work to meet a stated standard of quality. It's not unreasonable even in the public sector. It is, in fact, absolutely necessary. Yet it has been mysteriously absent in public K-12 education.

I can't say that I'm in favor of the reforms proposed or imposed by the current administration of Seattle Public Schools. But I do know that something isn't working and needs to be fixed.

Patrick said...

As far as I can see, all organizations have their dirt. The difference is, the public sector is bound by open records requirements and public proceedings, while the private sector is largely able to keep their dirt swept under the carpet.