By Geoffrey F. Segal
Watch closely as Georgia plays host to a fascinating experiment in public administration.
Sandy Springs, an unincorporated suburb of Atlanta in northeast Fulton County, holds enormous promise in demonstrating what local government is, how it should work and what it should be.
After decades of opposition, Sandy Springs finally won support for cityhood from the General Assembly this year, when HB 37 finally allowed the 35-year-old Committee for Sandy Springs the opportunity to fulfill its mission to “obtain accountable and responsive local government for the citizens of Sandy Springs.”
And in a June 21 referendum on turning the community into one of the largest cities in the state, Sandy Springs citizens approved incorporation with 94.6 percent of the vote, in effect seceding from the county.
Residents have been upset about dismal service, a lack of local control and the skyrocketing costs of public services. Now that they’ve wrestled control away, the new city has a unique opportunity to redefine how municipal government should look, function and interact with citizens. City leaders are starting with a blank slate enabling them to ask the fundamental questions about what role government should play.
First, taking a page from management guru Peter Drucker, every “traditional” service or function will need to prove its worthiness and proper role and place within government. Absent any program history, city officials are able to apply Drucker’s test for business – “If we weren’t doing this yesterday, would we do it today?” – to the operation of municipal government.
There is little doubt that some services will no longer be provided by Sandy Springs – either because they’ve outgrown their purpose, they no longer are effective, or they are outside the role of government.
Second, city officials are determining whether to “make or buy” public services. City officials expect to contract out as many services as possible to the private sector. In addition, they hope to partner with neighboring municipal governments for service or even with the county. All of these options, for the most part, are preferred over “making” their own internal bureaucracy.
With a focus on efficiency and more importantly effectiveness of public service, Sandy Springs has embraced the power of competition to determine how services will be provided. Public and private entities alike are competing for the right to provide services in Sandy Springs. In addition, city officials see the value and power of a contract to guarantee high quality services – and plan on using them for all services, including those potentially “made” with internal resources.
The plan is modeled after the city of Weston, Fla., population 65,000, which incorporated in 1996 after years of poor public service and spiraling costs. Today the city has only three public employees. Most of Weston’s services were privatized, resulting in better service at significantly lower cost.
“Over what the county was providing, there was a dramatic increase in the quality of services, with the next jurisdiction in the county more than double our property taxes,” said Weston City Manager John Flint.
All of this activity in Sandy Springs is taking place under the fearless direction of Oliver Porter, who was appointed by Gov. Sonny Perdue to oversee a transition board. With the help of countless volunteers, Porter is steering relatively uncharted waters.
If you are suffering from a high tax burden, high cost of government or stale business climate, your local governments can learn a thing or two from Oliver Porter and Sandy Springs’ approach to governance.
All levels of government should periodically ask the fundamental questions about how governments operate and whether there is a better way; about what types of services and programs are essential and necessary to provide, and perhaps more importantly, what are not.
Geoffrey F. Segal is a visiting fellow at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and the director of government reform at Reason Foundation. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (August 26, 2005). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.