Defining the Role of Government

Is it government's obligation to provide services, or to see that they are provided?
by | October 20, 2010

Stephen Goldsmith is deputy mayor of operations for the City of New York.

Budget cutting requires a unique skill set. Public officials have to think creatively about how to ensure needed public services get delivered. This means thinking outside the usual parameters regarding how to simply sustain government processes.

Or, as former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo once put it, "It is not a government's obligation to provide services, but to see that they are provided."

Shortly after I began my work in New York City as deputy mayor, fiscal shortfalls forced painful cuts to bus services. The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) discontinued some routes, leaving struggling New Yorkers facing longer and more difficult commutes.

In a creative response, Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed better utilization of privately-operated commuter vans. In many cases, these van services had been pushed to the margins by legislation added over the years to preserve the MTA's "franchise." But with the MTA having to back out of these routes, it only makes sense to allow private operators a shot at providing the needed services.

It's not clear whether these private group-ride vans can navigate the rules and find a market, but their use raises a fundamental question about the role of government. With budgets tight, officials now must decide what obligations they owe residents and what is owed to the public employees who serve them. The revenues that support government are limited and the equities problematic.

In the Bridgewater-Raynham school district outside of Boston, this contrast came into sharp focus recently. Faced with budget shortfalls, the school district decided to close some elementary school libraries. It looked like the problem was solved when parents and volunteers stepped in to fill the void -- until the local teacher's union announced it would "grieve" the use of volunteers. Union spokeswoman Anita Newman told the Boston Globe "I love volunteers, but when they take the place of a teacher -- and a librarian is a teacher -- that's a violation of the contract."

Officials must continue to diligently work to reform governmental systems and make sure they are funded as completely as possible. At the same time, officials must look at the issue from the broader frame of the public's access to important services.

It would be terrific for the city of New York if the MTA had the resources it needs and could deliver great service for every route. But they don't have those resources, and may not for quite some time. We need to be open to creative mechanisms of providing these services.

So what makes public transportation or public education "public"? Is it the fact that public tax dollars support them, the fact that public employees provide them or the fact that the public is served by them?

When I was struggling with how to improve the public schools in Indianapolis, economist Milton Friedman warned me not to confuse the purpose of a public service with its provision. In the case of education, Friedman reminded me that charter schools and vouchers were totally acceptable ways to provide children with public education.

And so it goes as we explore transportation, or homeless services, or medical or emergency care. If we can't maintain government services in the traditional way, we have an obligation to look at how to make the market work better in other ways to serve residents.

We need to remember, for example, that the goal isn't to provide bus service but to ensure mobility for residents. Our goal isn't to run schools, but to provide education.

When thinking of how to do this, we need to think if there are private or nonprofit providers that could extend their service if government would reduce market barriers or provide subsidies.

In general, it is best to politically separate those who currently provide a service from those who might oversee such an expansion. Organizations responsible for primarily providing a service tend not to be very good at licensing and/or subsidizing their competition. Local schools boards, for example, rarely approve charters that will compete for "their" students. The New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission can do a much better job of organizing transportation alternatives than the MTA because its focus is on the quality and quantity of mobility, not operations.

Budget cutting exercises bring out the very best and the very worst in public officials. New York City is now faced with extraordinary budget pressures and is looking hard at creative alternatives. That process is unlocking value that will help supplement important government services with complementary public services.

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