After revelations of employees stealing money and other examples of poor management and lax control, Governor Roy Barnes has replaced the head of the Georgia Building Authority (GBA). Along with this change in leadership, there has also been plenty of talk about privatization of GBA services.
My initial reaction to the idea of privatization is that it is probably a good idea. It is grossly apparent that greater efficiency and economy are needed. Had the cafeterias, in which employees stole funds, been run by a private entity with the profitability of the firm dependent upon the income of the facility, the discrepancies would have been spotted in days or weeks rather than years, and they would have been corrected. That being said, we should approach every attempt to privatize government services with a degree of caution.
It is certainly true that there are very few tasks that the private sector cannot perform more efficiently or economically than government. Superior ingenuity along with attention to detail and economies are the product of a desire to make a profit. No profit motive exists in the public sector. As elementary as it might sound, this is the force that makes privatization an important consideration for taxpayers.
Assuming this premise, however, is it a given that all government functions should be privatized? Would the public be better off if all public employees were transferred to private payrolls? Not necessarily. The courts and the state patrol are just two examples of state entities that rightfully belong in the public sector.
We are fortunate to live in an era when some limited scrutiny of big government has emerged — possibly the most important public policy shift of our time. Hopefully, the tide has turned and the future trend will be toward smaller government at all levels. The question remains, however, just what functions should be privatized, and in what sequence, so as to logically reduce government and deliver services more efficiently and economically to taxpayers by employing services readily and competitively found in the private sector.
First, it is impractical to assume that a major transition such as mass privatization, as appealing as it might be, can occur in a lifetime. There are too many public employees who wield great power and would likely resist such a move. Additionally, the voting public is often more skeptical of business than of government and would not support mass privatization.
Second, while privatization is often assumed to automatically reduce government, that is not always the case. It has been interesting to listen to the privatization debate, spearheaded by well-meaning conservatives. The talk to date has revolved primarily around “non-essential” services.
Consider the term for a moment, “non-essential.” If a service is not essential, why not work to eliminate it as opposed to privatizing it? If privatized, the “non-essential” service will suddenly have new champions to lobby for continuation and expansion of the service and related funding, probably having an effect of growth rather than reduction on government. Without adequate competition, business will not necessarily be a better steward of public dollars than public officials will. Further, and just as importantly, business is pulled tighter and tighter under the wings of government as they become dependent on public spending — a dangerous trend.
The privatization effort should be focused, certainly initially, on those functions that are essential — those which must be performed and will not expand in size and scope simply because they are performed by private entities who want to see their businesses grow. Careful consideration should be given to each privatization opportunity and a class of transitions targeted which, if privatized, will bring greater efficiency to government but not encourage non-essential service growth.
In our state, the Georgia Building Authority might well be a very good place to start. It is practically inarguable that the services provided by this agency are necessary. If government is to function and protect the rights of its citizens, it must provide the basic necessities of a work force and maintain its physical infrastructure just as in a successful business. The GBA provides maintenance and operational services to approximately forty state-owned buildings and grounds, operates four parking facilities, provides security through the GBA Police Department, operates three cafeterias and provides catering functions, runs the State Van-Pool, aids state agencies in building inspections and design and furnishes other ancillary services — all services readily found privately where great competition exists.
Let’s hope the governor and the new GBA director, Mr. Black, see fit to move ahead with such a logical plan. The State of Georgia leads the nation in so many areas, and the mood exists now that will allow us to set the pace for appropriate privatization if we take advantage of this opportunity. The GBA is a perfect starting point for an ongoing process that could move our government toward true efficiency.
Steve Langford, a general contractor, served in the Georgia Senate for six years and was a gubernatorial candidate in 1998. He lives in LaGrange, Georgia. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is a nonpartisan, member-supported research and education organization based in Atlanta, Georgia, that promotes free markets, limited government and individual responsibility. 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 (September 21, 1999). Permission is hereby given to reprint this article, with appropriate credit given.