The Role of Government
Throughout history, democratically-established governments have stood as the best way to promote and protect the public interest. Government agencies at all levels, when functioning at full potential, provide the best means of making decisions that affect the public with accountability, transparency, public participation, and fairness. Government works to serve the common good by creating public structures, such as highways, water systems, and the postal service. These structures and systems, from Social Security to community colleges, ensure that society reaps maximum benefits, since true prosperity rests on collective success.
Although government has been responsible for many of the most important advances in society, the very concept of government came under repeated attack in American politics in the latter half of the 20th century. When anti-government politicians took office, they often made their criticisms of government come true by defunding and dismantling important services. As Big Government became a political bogeyman, government by contract significantly increased. As Dan Guttman wrote in the 2004 book Making Government Manageable, "The mid-20th century development of government by third party was not an accident, but reflected a bipartisan design by reformers to grow the Federal government while avoiding the perceived perils of enlarging the official bureaucracy."
A return to valuing the common good
While some politicians continue their attacks on government, the tide of public opinion is beginning to shift. A Center for American Progress study in March 2009 found that six in 10 Americans believe "government should do more to promote the common good."
There is increasing awareness that "inherently governmental functions" should not be entrusted to private interests. The mention of Halliburton, Blackwater, Katrina, or Walter Reed Army Medical Center conjures dark images of contractors failing to act in the public's best interest. Building mass transportation, providing universal education, administering the justice system, protecting public safety, and protecting the environment are just a few of the necessary functions that can only be adequately provided through pooled resources (taxes) and democratically elected government acting in the public interest.
Still, the battered economy is pushing many public officials into a shortsighted frenzy for quick cash from privatization. Desperate to balance the budget, governments are selling control of major revenue-producing assets, giving corporations the power to make decisions for generations - sometimes up to 99 years -- that will profoundly impact public services and costs. Governments also are seeking to reduce their budgets by shifting essential services to companies that skimp on staff wages, benefits, safety and training -- resulting in high turnover, unmotivated staff, more uninsured workers and wage depression in the community.
Good government reforms
More work is necessary to regain full trust in the ability of government to be a positive force. Reforms are needed to improve accountability, banish corruption and ensure that public services are provided in a way that gives voters and taxpayers the best deal for the common good.
A crucial area for reform is the regulation and monitoring of government contracts. Responsible contracting reforms are proposed and have been enacted in many states and localities, to open the process to public deliberation, ensure all costs of outsourcing are accurately considered in financial analyses, require adherence to labor standards, and protect against corruption.
Local and state governments are experimenting with new quality improvement and efficiency programs, innovative labor-management partnerships and other efforts to optimize the provision of public services.