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By Steve Kelman

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'If this were government it would be a news story'

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The media serves an important role in government oversight, argues Steve Kelman.

Last weekend in Washington, I went with my wife and some friends to see Lincoln.  The Saturday night scene at the AMC theater near Mazza Galleria was total chaos. There were several lines weaving in and out of each other, with no clear indication (such as ropes or signs) of which line was for picking up pre-purchased tickets, which for buying new tickets, and which for entering the cinema. No employee was visible to organize any of these lines or explain what was going on. There was no demarcation between the ticket/entry lines and the place for people leaving a show to exit through the lobby, so departing customers (of whom there were a significant number) had to somehow break through the various ticket customer lines.

During the chaos, one member of our party commented, “If this were government, it would be a news story.” The point was that glitches or bad performance in government is the stuff of scandal and media attention, while similar problems in the private sector may get little attention at all.

I reflected on this statement afterwards.(Actually, I told our group that I planned to blog on it immediately after the statement was made.) Here’s what I think:

The person who wants government folks to stop complaining about media coverage might note that in many ways the media (along with congressional oversight) performs a disciplining function for government that is analogous to that performed for private companies by the marketplace. It is certainly not the case that agencies are subject to strict oversight while companies get off scot-free, just because the media are more aggressive in covering government than companies – indeed, of course, many outside government complain that there is little “accountability” in government compared with business because government folks are seldom fired or go bankrupt, unlike the situation in business. In some sense, the media (along with congressional overseers and Inspectors General) act as substitutes for the marketplace as a source of discipline and control for government.

But there is a difference between media/congressional/IG oversight and marketplace oversight that does create problems for government. A crucial feature of marketplace oversight is that, while it does punish failure or incompetence, it also richly rewards performance and achievements. Some companies do go bankrupt, but others flourish. Marketplace oversight thus balances risk and reward.

However, for a whole bunch of reasons (that ultimately in some sense have to do with what citizens or politicians like to hear), the kind of oversight to which government is subject is much more focused only on criticizing the problems rather than cherishing the performers. The government equivalent of the cinema chaos does indeed get media attention, but the government equivalent of a solidly well-performing company (say a Proctor & Gamble or Wells Fargo bank) passes unnoticed, dismissed as the dog that didn’t bark.

This in turn has consequences for the way government is managed and for government performance. Government is often much more oriented towards avoiding scandals as opposed to achieving results. That is not a good thing. In movie theaters faced a similar set of incentives, the lines would probably be less chaotic, but the movies probably wouldn’t be as good.

Posted on Dec 06, 2012 at 12:09 PM

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Reader comments

Mon, Dec 10, 2012

The problem with this anology is that when the private sector messes up they lose customers and cash because the customers have choices, but with the Government everyone is still stuck with the service as well as the bill (taxes) so the only way to attempt to fix problems within it is to raise a big stink. Instead of fixing the problem, too many in the Government push back with excuses - like pointing the fingers at others (read above article for example). That is something the private sector cannot get away with on a regular basis if they want to stay in business - unlike the Government.

Fri, Dec 7, 2012 Andrew F

Your article is very true. I started my federal career 22 years ago knowing that achieving significant results would not significantly rewarded. And I have achieved some significant results with little recognition, as expected. I'm not in it just for the money. But where I feel betrayed, above and beyond the problem you are writing about, is when politicians uses federal workers and their hard earned pay for political points.

Fri, Dec 7, 2012 Paul Sherman

Thanks so much for the analogy. It actually explains my career a lot. I've always been results focused, often naively thinking that others felt the same way. I increasingly run into those that are more concerned about avoiding OIG or Congressional visibility. Frankly, i never cared about that - but Congress wouldn't want me in front of them anyway (I'd either take the 5th, be held in contempt, or perjure to avoid).

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