Throw away that MBA

Government should not be run like a business, and citizens are not customers.

The idea that government should be run more like a business qualifies as conventional wisdom. But to Michael Schrage, that is a "dangerous, foolish and counterproductive myth."

Business officials have to be concerned with cash flow and profits, but government agencies are not expected to operate that way, nor should they, said Schrage, co-director of the E-Markets Initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Laboratory.

The bottom line for the government must always be the public good. If government officials begin thinking like business executives, they will make bad decisions based on the wrong premises, he said.

For the same reason, government officials should not encourage constituents to think of themselves as customers, Schrage said. The expectations that come with such a mind-set are bound to go unmet because government, for practical reasons, simply cannot be run like a business.

Making government more efficient by running it like a business is a great sound bite, said Alisoun Moore, chief information officer for Montgomery County, Md. But it's difficult to do.

"I still have to follow procurement rules," she said. "I still have to talk to the [legislative] minority as well as the majority to get support for projects, and they continue to be pressured by constituent concerns and other things."

That doesn't mean the push to more businesslike operations has been all bad, Moore said. But the way government runs is counter to the top-down, efficient, rapid decision-making that drives business.

"The organizational and power structures are just too different," she said.

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

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