By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

The Lectern: What students think about government outsourcing

I teach a class in my intro masters-level public management course on a decision by the Massachusetts Department of Social Services to contract out the provision of child protective services to a non-profit community group. We use the class as an occasion to discuss considerations in government's "make-buy decision" -- when should government contract out production of a service, or product, and when should it make the service or product in-house?


As part of the class, for the last few years I have done a Web-based poll asking students if they think the government should "generally" contract out a number of functions. These are: prison operation, benefits determination for welfare recipients, operation of a college student loan data center, campsites at national parks, and a study of the costs and benefits of an Occupational Safety and Health Administration health regulation.


I was especially interested to see how the results would turn out this year in comparison with previous years. (I was on sabbatical last year, so most recently taught this class two years ago.) These students have, of course, been exposed over the last few years to a political and media environment rife with stories about contract fraud, abuse, and general horrors.


What was therefore fascinating is that the overall responses of my students this year have not really changed from the first time I conducted gthis poll several years ago. A fairly decisive majority opposes contracting out either prisons or welfare benefits determination. This year, for example, 25 percent favored generally contracting out prison operations, 58 percent opposed, the rest were not sure.


In contrast, an equally decisive majority (and in the case of IT data centers, a larger majority) favored generally contracting out the other three. For the data center, students favored contracting out by 64 percent to 17 percent. The only slight trend over time is towards an increasing percentage of students favoring contracting out the latter three activities.


There was no groundswell against contracting among my students, despite the media storms of the past few years. Now the challenge is to get at least a few of them willing to take jobs helping the government out in managing these contracts!

Posted by Steve Kelman on Mar 27, 2008 at 12:09 PM


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