For Some in Government, ‘Effective’ Is the New ‘Efficient’

Some say striving for efficiency only sets governments up for problems.

For a generation now, the buzzword for government officials has been “efficiency”—faster and cheaper equals better. But that mindset misses the big picture, says Linda Langston, the county executive of Linn County, Iowa, and the current president of the National Association of Counties. “You can be really efficient at going 100 mph, but if it’s in the wrong direction, what good does it do?”

Government was never designed to be efficient, she says, and leaders who tout efficiency are setting themselves up for problems. Instead, Langston’s been pushing a new buzzword: “effectiveness.” In other words, are programs achieving the desired results? A city-run health clinic can be efficient at getting clients in and out the door, she says. But if just the symptoms are treated instead of taking the time to address the underlying problem, that client will return again and again, costing more money in the long run.

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“I do believe that government has an obligation to be effective at what we do,” Langston says. “I think we do a disservice to ourselves and the public when people say government needs to be run more like a business.” Besides, she adds, “no one in their right minds” would run a business that does everything governments do.

It may sound like a semantics debate. But Langston says that focusing on the endgame rather than the short term helps her have meaningful—effective, even—conversations with taxpayers. “Part of it is really encouraging those dialogues with those constituents and also using language that actually means something,” she says. “I believe it’s sloppy of us to make broad generalizations like ‘taxes should be lower.’ What we need is a more critical understanding of what those taxes go to.”

Daniel Luzer is GOVERNING's news editor.