Quick Hits 10-26-2011

Privatizing Infrastructure

Local governments are increasingly looking to outsourcing infrastructure, such as roads and utilities, as public coffers continue to dwindle in the “Great Recession.”  One of the latest is a bridge in Chesapeake, Virginia that will be sold to a private company.  The company will completely rebuild the bridge; and user tolls will finance the private debt service.  Generally speaking, I’m a proponent of outsourcing when it makes business sense.  Our City has outsourced selected services (e.g. residential refuse collection).  But, one should not assume that the private sector is superior in all instances.  Take the case of an Indiana toll road as reported in Governing Magazine.  The state sold a toll road to a private firm in 2006 for $3.8 billion.  Now, the private company is having difficulty making its debt payments on the road due to lower than anticipated tolls and higher than anticipated maintenance (surprise).  Those who manage infrastructure for a living can sympathize with the predicament.  And, Governor Mitch Daniels now looks quite savvy for making the deal.  There are two lessons here.  First, infrastructure maintenance is expensive regardless of presupposed efficiency of an organization.  Also, private sector organizations are not inherently superior to public sector organizations simply by virtue of being private sector organizations.  Incidentally, note that the Chesapeake bridge toll noted above will increase from 75 cents to two dollars under private management.

Put down the phone!

The efficacy of texting and driving laws remains to be seen.  But, the data that correlates texting and driving with increased risk on the road is becoming more apparent.  For example, a Freakonomics post indicates that accidents in Dubai fell by as much as 40 percent during the recent Blackberry outage.

Go Cards!

St. Louis, Missouri reportedly cancelled its planned furloughs for municipal employees due to increased local revenue.  The source of the increased revenue is the playoff success of the city’s beloved Cardinals.  As a huge fan of baseball and municipal government, I’m cheering for a Game 7.

More wisdom inspired by Steve Jobs

A couple of Governing contributors, Robert Knisely and Ken Miller, recently noted several lessons from the legacy of Apple founder Steve Jobs.  Here are some highlights.

A common cliché among some talking heads is to refer to citizens or constituents in government as “customers.”” It sounds more business-like.  Knisely posits that Steve Jobs did wait for customers to tell him what they wanted.  He told them what they needed.  And, on citizens as “customers”

“When the highway patrolman stops you for speeding, you’re not his customer.”

And, on saying no:

“But we’ve always done it that way” doesn’t cut it at Apple. And saying no is as important as saying yes.”

And, the Quote of the Day comes from Governing contributor and guru, Ken Miller, in his piece entitled “Steve Jobs’ Legacy for Government.”

Think how government widgets get created: The design comes from the lawmakers, the specs come from the policy shop, the execution from someone in a field office miles away. And nowhere in this process is the customer. Imagine how bad Apple’s products would be if the company’s board of directors designed them? How awful they would be if the designers never actually used them themselves. The public sector needs to get better at design.

And, finally a bonus oldie-but-goodie quote from Henry Ford:

“If I had asked customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”