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Taking the High Road: Local Government Restructuring and the Quest for Quality

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All local governments face challenges to improve service delivery. This report outlines two alternative strategies—the “high road” which uses new management innovations to increase internal productivity, and the “low road” which focuses on downsizing and contracting out. While other studies have focused on contracting out, this study provides a longitudinal look at contracting and presents detailed case studies of municipalities, which have brought back in house previously privatized services. These case studies provide empirical evidence on the problems associated with contracting and the potential for internal restructuring as an alternative.

Contracting is costly. Research on problems with contracting out in the for-profit sector is shown to have parallels in governmental contacting. Difficulty of contract specification (especially for complex services), the cost and difficulty of monitoring contract performance, and limited cost savings are some of the problems that cause governments to bring previously privatized work back in house. Broader public values—responsiveness to changing citizen demands, maintaining high standards of public service delivery among the workforce—also can be compromised with privatization.

While competitive bidding is associated with some cases of contracting back in, for many governments’ dissatisfaction with privatization was so strong that no effort was made to rebid the contract. In many of these cases new patterns of labor management cooperation within the public sector resulted in improved efficiency and service quality at lower costs than private contracts. Taking the “high road” of restructuring through improved labor-management cooperation can provide better quality service with fewer risks and greater social rewards. For those public officials who truly wish to “reinvent government” internal management reforms deserve a closer look.

Rapid changes in the economy on the one hand and the unrelenting demand for public services on the other have placed new pressures on all levels of government to “banish bureaucracy” and “reinvent” the public sector. Reinventing government is a noble and desirable goal, but many reform efforts have failed by focusing too heavily on downsizing the public workforce through the privatization of government services. While privatization can take many forms, the most common practice is for governments to “contract out” services to private organizations. In these situations the government continues to use public funds to pay for services, but the responsibility for production of the service is shifted to a private firm.

In some instances, privatization through contracting out is part of a larger ideological crusade to reduce the absolute size of government. In other cases, contracting out is driven by management fads imported from the private sector, where the practice is commonly used but remains poorly understood. A third influence is the general shift in American society towards greater mistrust of government coupled with a renewed faith in the textbook model of free markets. When combined with advice from popular management books and magazines to become more “businesslike” in their operations, many public managers find the lure of contracting out to be irresistible.

Are the proponents of contracting out right? To what extent have the economic and organizational benefits actually followed? This study attempts to answer these questions by looking at local governments’ experiences with contracting in the United States. The report begins with a review of several academic studies that assess the impact of contracting out on individuals, organizations, and communities. Unfortunately, many of these studies show disappointing results with contracting out in both the public and private sectors. To better understand why contracting out often has not lived up to its promise, this report looks at several case studies from across the country where public officials have chosen to bring work back in house following a period of privately produced service. Finally, the report looks at one important but underutilized alternative to privatization, namely, the refashioning of labor-management relations through innovative “partnership” programs. These programs demonstrate that the efficiency of public services can be improved significantly through the use of internal management reforms. Given the risks involved in privatization, labor-management partnerships should be given priority over contracting out when public managers see the need to restructure local government services