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A Sharing Thing

The March 9th edition of The Economist dedicated several pages to the new ‘sharing economy,’ citing a variety of positives. This emerging ‘collaborative economy’ allows the public to participate in the practice of ‘collaborative consumption’ which in turn has economic, social and environmental benefits. With Avis, General Motors, Daimler and other multinationals getting into the game, it would appear that broad-based collaboration can also generate significant sums for those with excess assets, or more specifically, with the wherewithal to establish businesses to connect the dots. Maximizing underused personal or corporate assets seems honorable, practical and somewhat strategic, especially in a struggling economy with growing social inequity.

While it seems sensible to embrace the elective sharing of autos, trucks, homes, condos, equipment, sports gear and camping spaces, I wonder if a more progressive view isn’t warranted. There was no mention in this article of public sector assets and the wisdom of sharing the enormously redundant government resources found across America. When reviewing the classic organization structure found in virtually all cities and counties, there are identical services with the same mission, expertise, goals and operational plans. Counties have clerks, treasurers, assessors, HR staffs, and departments for IT, GIS, public safety, parks, economic development, public works and utilities. Cities have very similar IT, GIS, public works, public safety, economic development and HR departments, as well as clerks, treasurers, etc. Both may have recreational facilities, libraries and social services programs. Especially in a difficult economy, even a cursory analysis will raise questions about redundant and enormously expensive operations. And, with the emerging emphasis on shared assets and collaborative consumption, why was government not discussed?

Service consolidation has been debated for many years, but tends to lose momentum once local elected officials begin to understand the loss of power and self-determination that might accompany service and departmental consolidation. Incumbent managers could potentially be in jeopardy, with many senior professionals losing positions deemed unnecessary once services were streamlined. My question is, Why is this so different than business? It has been over 20 years since Ted Gaebler and Dave Osborne wrote Reinventing Government (Penguin Books 1992), the first deep dive into consolidated and entrepreneurial government. This movement failed miserably within ten years, and the reasons why are instructive.

After making a splash on the lecture circuit, Gaebler returned to city management and expressed concerns that too many cultural and institutional barriers existed in most areas of the country. Even though entrepreneurial government and service consolidation made sense, there was not enough ‘pain’ in most communities to force necessary change and the concept of ‘home rule’ and centric governance contributed to myopic boundary protection. While I support the home rule concept and believe in the sanctity of local governance, it appears that merging basic services would save a lot of money without inhibiting local decision making.

My reflection here is generally rhetorical. However, U.S. economic challenges will not magically disappear, even with a stronger economy. At some juncture, a new era of wise public management must approach consolidation and resource sharing to preserve precious resources. After reviewing several studies, it seems that some reformists have spent considerable time demonstrating the value and feasibility of merging services. The city and county of San Francisco are two entities with one such success story. How much public revenue could be saved through sensible merging of parks, public works, transportation, utilities, recreation programs, information technologies, GIS, public safety, vehicle maintenance, etc?  What if it could save billions without any degradation in service delivery?

While there has been a trend toward intergovernmental partnerships, this is not the same as permanent consolidation. Partnering agencies retain their layers of infrastructure and facilities, while collaborating mostly in planning and service delivery. The public may see more effective service delivery; it rarely sees significantly reduced costs. Admittedly, the pain of reduced resources has forced some government entities to drift toward consolidation, but these have been defensive, survival-motivated moves rather than an indication of a new era in public administration.

Change will most likely require legislation and an entirely new vision for public service delivery. The real question is whether such monumental change will ever be driven by wisdom, vision and proactive thinking or by enormous social and economic pain that leaves no other choice. The former motivation would be my choice.

jfl-pic-blue-shirtyellow-tie1.jpgWith over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal government long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). His 2010 book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders, is being hailed as the best book for public managers and community leaders who are committed to building a sustainable future.  An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

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