The people who most interested me were wary of centralized control, but they were not free market libertarians. They believed in the power of competition, but they also believed that some of society's most important achievements could not be incentivized with economic reward. They called themselves entrepreneurs but worked mostly in the public sector. They were equally suspicious of big government and big corporations. From a certain angle, they looked like a digital-age version of such nineteenth-century anarchists as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon or Mikhail Bakunin. Yet beneath that strange, hard-to-place eclecticism, a core philosophy seemed to unite all their efforts, even if it didn't fit comfortably into the existing categories of political belief.

~ Future Perfect by Steven Johnson Amazon

Services are delivered by companies. But we need the government or else the greedy capitalists will take everything. But the government is inefficient and slow – just look at the Post Office. But… But…

The dirty little secret is that no one knows necessarily what the right answer to this question is because we are still learning the right solution for a particular and the right solution is constantly changing. Instead of thinking in binary terms maybe it would be more helpful to think in terms of a spectrum with fully public delivery on the one side (passing legislation would fit here – we probably do not want the rule-making function of governance to be within the private sector and even more susceptible to private capture than it currently is) and fully private delivery on the other side (selling slurpees – we probably do not want selling of fungible goods to be within the private sector which has little incentives to innovate). In between these extremes there is a very large space in which operators can work.

One of the arrangements I work in routinely for Watershed's clients are Public-Private Partnerships or PPP's. You know these from such hits as the private vendors operating services within national parks, or stadium builds which are usually a mix of public and private financing. These partnerships allow for a wide variety of delivery possibilities that are not nearly as limiting as a simple binary question of public v. private. Instead of focusing on the binary nature of service delivery within our policy debates which characterizes the delivery of services as either purely private or purely public each with its advocate class and all unable to resolve their differences or get things done so that people can get to the task of l i v i n, perhaps we should think more in terms of a spectrum. Focus our thinking about service delivery on a spectrum rather than a binary on-off switch allows us to focus our debates on finding the right point along the spectrum to deliver the services which we are speaking to.

To Europeans this debate that occupies our time, the government is great v. government sucks debate, is hilarious. I get asked about it a lot. It is intuitive to most Europeans that service delivery operates on a spectrum. Services in Europe are routinely modified within the spectrum and also change over time due to efficiencies, politics, or many other factors. Last year there was an outcry within the UK as the conservative government was trying to move the National Health Service along the spectrum towards the private side which raised many alarms for people. But that debate, and many others within the politics of service delivery in Europe happen without the sky is falling, scream at your TV, Nancy Grace style of debate.

I like that part of Europe. A lot. Because generally when the population that doesn't know anything about the delivery of such services simply gets out of the way things happen in a pretty smooth way. Not all the time. But most of the time when people who don't know things about things let the people who do know things about things do their jobs things run pretty well.

Of course there are differences between the two. Incentives for one are different. Private sector actors have incentives to optimize their profits. To think of short term gains over long term innovation. To reduce costs and simplify delivery mechanisms. These are all well and good, but there is a place for them. Public sector actors have a different set of incentives. To ensure the widest access to the services. To ensure the right costing is built into the system.

The difference in these set of incentives (of which the above is meant to be illustrative) are important to understand. But our polity just needs to remember that there is space within these incentives for harmonization. Once we stop thinking in the simplistic terms of “Government good” | “Government bad” and start asking the question of how this service should be delivered based on what “we” are trying to accomplish. Then a whole world of policy solutions is opened to us.

Try it during the upcoming election season. Watch a debate and ask yourself if the debaters are being overly reductive in how they are approaching a service delivery question. Those that are not being overly reductive – that are in the business of finding solutions which will actually move us along a path rather than simply spewing forth banal answers – those are the ones that I will be voting for.

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