It’s too bad that articles in academic journals are so filled with jargon, because they often contain valuable information, or make important points that get ignored or glossed over, even by other members of the academy.
Case in point, a recent article in Public Administration Review, a very highly-regarded journal focusing on issues of public management. The title ” Governance, Privatization and Systemic Risk in the Disarticulated State” was calculated to make your eyes glaze over, and I will admit I only read it because I know both of the co-authors (one is a SPEA colleague) and know them to be first-rate scholars.
Ignore the wonky title. This is yet another analysis of government’s love-affair with privatization.
The authors apply research on “systemic risk” to the public-private partnerships that have become ever more common over the past quarter-century or so, the networks of for-profit and non-profit organizations increasingly used by public-sector agencies to do government’s work and deliver public services. As they note, such public networks are similar to financial systems: they are complex, interdependent and risky. Furthermore, if and when they fail, that failure has “potentially catastrophic” effects on citizens who depend upon public services.
One of those risks is that an organization in one of these privatized networks will try to benefit at the expense of the others. The article cites several examples: halfway houses in New Jersey were found to have falsified records in order to have high-risk inmates placed in their (understaffed) facilities; in Tucson, Arizona, a downtown development project employed a network of developers and consultants that spent millions of taxpayer dollars and failed to produce anything.
The risk isn’t confined to dishonesty and self-dealing. The Providence Service Corporation is the largest provider of privatized social services in North America. When the 2008 Great Recession hit, investors dumped their stock in the company (it went from $36 per share to less than a dollar). The loss of capital threatened the ability of the company to continue delivering services to 70,000 clients.
After an extensive discussion of the nature and extent of the dangers involved, the authors conclude that, “reliance upon third parties to produce government services is fraught with risk at all levels.”
This analysis joins a growing and steady accumulation of evidence that the wholesale embrace of privatization of public services is too often costly, risky and counter-productive.
The rush to privatize–to offload public responsibilities–is part and parcel of the assault on the whole enterprise of government that has always been part of American political discourse, but which really gained traction during the Reagan Administration. It’s an attitude, rather than a philosophy, and it plays to the very American desire to address messy, complicated realities with simple, bumper-sticker remedies.
As we are learning the hard way, government can’t privatize away its responsibilities, and too often, the effort to do just that ends up making matters worse.