By Jim Miller
At the outset, I will make this admission: I am an apologist for the value of local government in our lives.
And, as with all apologists, I am sometimes overly sensitive to criticism about the source of my passion.
So it was when I read a short letter to the editor recently bemoaning the general ineptitude of local government officials because most had not worked in the private sector. The writer noted that: “In the private sector, poor performance has real consequences, like dismissal or failure of the business. Government at all levels would benefit, I think, if officials were required to have at least 10 years’ experience in a real job.”
About this same time, there were several newspaper articles discussing how local government salaries had increased in recent years, with some top administrators now making more than the governor. Many reactions were negative—how can anyone working in local government make so much money? As with the letter to the editor, implicit in these responses is the belief that what government does is not worth what the private sector delivers.
My sensitivity was heightened because at the same time I was having a—how shall I say it?—less-than-satisfactory experience with an appliance company that has been in business for many years.
My issue concerned a two-month-old wall oven that was malfunctioning. This vendor was not necessarily the cheapest, but the salesperson stressed the superior service we could expect. As someone who has spent his entire career in government, I could well appreciate the importance of quality service.
My experience did not go particularly well. The service representative first offered that the problem was probably something electronic and that this can happen because, of course, ovens generate a lot of heat. When I realized he wasn’t trying to be funny, I controlled myself (admirably, I think) and calmly asked how soon they could service the oven, what with Thanksgiving now less than a week away. The unapologetic answer was the second week in December. Again exhibiting remarkable control, I reminded him that this oven was less than two months old, that we had also bought other appliances at the same time, and that having a malfunctioning oven for Thanksgiving wasn’t really acceptable. After then talking with that person’s supervisor, they reluctantly agreed to service it three days later (unsuccessfully, it turned out).
I thought of the salesperson’s assertion about the company’s outstanding service. I couldn’t help but think the company motto should have been something like: “Quality service, but not when you need it.” That motto on the side of a city snowplow would not ensure longevity for top administrators. I also wondered how much the appliance store manager made in comparison to the city administrator in that same city.
The point, of course, is that no organization— private or public—is perfect. All organizations are only as effective as the commitment and expertise of the people who work for them. People—good, talented people—make the quality difference in all organizations. “You get what you pay for” may be a cliché, but like most clichés, it is often true. Such is the case when any organization hires those it will depend on to fulfill its mission.
Local governments are complex organizations, providing widely different products such as police service and snowplowing. Even small cities may have multimillion-dollar budgets. These organizations require the same level—if not more—of legal, finance, and management expertise as any private-sector organization of comparable size.
People who work in the public sector are not there because they have no choice. They choose public service because they find it intrinsically rewarding. They know they likely will not be paid as much as they would in a similar private-sector job, but they do deserve to be fairly compensated for the important jobs they do on our behalf.
With the looming retirement of so many in public service, we should be doing all we can to encourage talented young people to consider government careers, rather than degrading the importance of government service.
We all have an interest in who will be performing the work of government in coming years.
Jim Miller is executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or (651) 281-1205.
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