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My Turn: Profit is the wrong motivator for a public service career

Since coming into office two years ago, Gov. Bill Walker has eliminated 2,500 state employment positions. About 400 more are being put on the chopping block this year. The obvious driver is the state’s budget crisis. But not all the jobs, or the state funds to support them, will actually be going away. Nor should the call to public service.

 

A case in point is the Walker’s plan is to outsource the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) design work. The proposal is for DOT to shed 75 jobs this year and another few hundred by 2019.

One third of those first 75 are part-time college intern positions. These aren’t highly productive employees. But they’re not supposed to be. The positions are for students on a break from their academic studies. The hands-on experience is supposed to better prepare them for professional engineering careers.

Outsourcing these jobs to private contractors won’t help DOT get “more projects completed from the available federal transportation funding.” That and “bolstering the private sector economy” are the primary benefits defined in the proposal.

The latter goal is fictional because it’s not the free market stimulating the economy. It’s taxpayer money. That said, I’m going to focus on the efficiency objective.

“Political ideology aside, traditional government services are generally privatized in hopes of saving money,” states the second edition of the online Encyclopedia of Business. Compiled by Advameg, Inc, a nationally recognized business resource, it explains that proponents “argue that government providers have no real incentive to hold down costs or to provide quality service. Private firms, on the other hand, are motivated by a profit motive that depends on holding costs down.”

But here’s the catch. Advameg’s authors acknowledge there’s “no large body of empirical evidence supporting or refuting the idea that privatization saves money.” It’s a conclusion reached from literature “replete with anecdotal evidence that it does in fact save tax dollars.”

Anecdotal evidence doesn’t support facts though. It’s the alternative offered as proof only when accepted scientific methods haven’t produced irrefutable evidence. Developed from casual observations made under uncontrolled circumstances, it can’t easily be repeated. And because it’s so easy to filter out the cases that don’t line up, anecdotal evidence is usually very biased.

So let me introduce my own anecdotal bias after working 33 years as an civil engineer for two federal agencies, a local municipality and the state of Washington DOT.

That all came after a job with a private consultant before and during the 1980 recession. Interest rates, inflation and unemployment all climbed into double digits. As the company struggled to make payroll each month, I was told to run up some billable hours doing unnecessary work for one of our clients.

“The main reason we’re in business is to make a profit,” my boss told me when I objected. Then he added something to the effect that businesses don’t survive if idealistic young engineers refuse to do what they’re told.

I began looking for a new job the next day.

The last 24 years of my career were with the Forest Service and Coast Guard Juneau. Many of the projects I worked on were high quality designs done by reputable private firms who would never engage in the unethical billing practice I was exposed to early in my career.

But not all. On more than a few occasions I had to battle with consultants who felt it was their right to bill the government to correct design mistakes they made. Others weren’t concerned with the cost of gold plating designs. And the fees some proposed were so outrageous we selected a different consultant after terminating negotiations.

That’s why the outsourcing proposal states some engineers will remain at DOT to perform “contractor oversight as opposed to hands-on engineering work.” Someone knowledgeable has to make sure government funds are wisely spent wisely and efficiently.

And here’s another anecdotal consideration. As I witnessed the government farm more and more design work out to consultants, the young engineers I supervised were losing valuable, hands-on design experience. If that continues, it won’t be long before those responsible for oversight won’t have the skills necessary to judge the quality or cost of a private consultant’s work.

I call that purifying the bureaucracy. It’s when the people left to make all the technical decisions on behalf of the government know next to nothing. And it’s why outsourcing DOT jobs doesn’t serve the public interest.

For the most part, whether a civil engineer works for a private consultant or a government agency, the roads, bridges, utilities and public buildings they design are funded by taxpayer dollars. They serve the general public. And that’s why for me and many of the professionals I worked with, public service was the motivator, not profit.

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector.

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