Government is often more efficient than the private sector … So why do we still hate government?

Anyone living in Toronto with access to a car and phone can replicate the experience that I had recently.

I drove downtown and parked on the street in one of those spaces that you need to get a parking voucher for the time you expect to stay.  While I was feeding the machine, a parking enforcement officer was stretching his neck to look for a voucher in my car.

I yelled and hooted: “I’m paying now… don’t ticket me!” He backed off and waved.

I attended a lunch but miscalculated the time I would require.  The mistake cost me $30. The ticket was time-stamped 8 minutes after the expiry of my voucher.

Later that day, I phoned to make a variation in one Air Canada airline ticket while a second ticket on the same file would be staying as it was. (I make this point as you can’t make this variation online).

After I punched enough numbers to get the right message in the voicemail prompts, an automated voice told me that no one was available to take my call (surprise!).

However, if I left my name and number, someone would call me back between two and a half hours and three and a half hours.

They missed on the estimate.  Three hours and forty five minutes later, someone called and woke me up at 11:45 p.m.

This is a highly replicable two part study called the ‘Park and Call Air Canada Study’ (PCACS). Just wait until your parking voucher times out and call Air Canada. See if you get ticketed before someone at Air Canada answers your call.

Go ahead! Try it! Randomly assign it – double blind it! Bet you’ll get the same result!

So what’s the point?

Our public sector institutions can be extremely efficient. Parking Enforcement in Toronto is the most responsive public institution in the city and perhaps the whole country. It’s the king of the hill; top of the heap. No one can touch it.

And they are part of government!

Air Canada is a private sector company and I won’t say a thing about its level of responsiveness. Let’s just say it is not in same league as Toronto’s Parking Enforcement.

Still, it is the long held conventional wisdom that the private sector is more efficient and more effective than government.

Just don’t confuse the conventional wisdom with the facts.

A month ago, I obtained a new Passport. I went to the Scarborough Service Canada Office and was amazed. The office was clean and welcoming. The triage was smart with a Commissionaire to direct traffic; officers to make sure applicants had the right credentials and highly efficient staff that took each person in order.

I paid the fancy new fees and was floored when I received my passport 4 days later by registered mail. Unbelievable!  Here was another case of real government efficiency and effectiveness to add to the list.

Perhaps it would be best for me not to detail my on-line purchase of a laptop computer last month. I entered my credit card online and I have now paid the credit card bill. I have received three notices that my computer is on back order and that they have no expected time of arrival.  Calls to the store result in long waiting periods followed by a click and then what I call ‘fast busy signals”.

You know what they sound like: a relentless “Buh buh buh buh buh buh…..”

When I visited the store, I saw the computer I had ordered on display for all to see – and buy. The explanation was: “I guess we have them here but the warehouse is out”. Hey!  That makes sense.

I could go on but I won’t. I want to make a different point about a pattern.

Over the past couple of decades, governments have become very efficient in their services that face the public and the reality is that they are much better than many large private sector outfits.

Anyone who has ever had an issue with a cellphone bill knows that instinctively.

So why do we continue to think that governments are less efficient and responsive than the private sector when the evidence is to the contrary?

I believe the answer lies in the fact that the most efficient and responsive systems in government are those that either penalize us or charge us fees. Those departments and services that are less efficient and less responsive tend to be those that neither penalize nor charge us.

Cash starved government departments are simply going to invest more of their budgets in areas where cost recovery and penalties can offset the cost.

LCBO stores are nicely turned out. Staff are (reasonably) responsive when line-ups materialize. And the LCBO takes in a ton of tax money.

The Canada Revenue Agency is very efficient. They caught an $11 mistake in my tax return last year and said I had 30 days to remit the five bucks I owed them. This is one quick and responsive agency.

But when it comes to services that are not in place to collect fees or penalties, the whole story is different.  Just ask a person with disabilities how long it takes to get through to the office that runs the Ontario Disability Support Plan (ODSP).

The reason is that governments are far more willing to invest in services that collect money than those that pay it out. The examples are everywhere. Just compare any fee charging government service to one that doesn’t. Or compare an agency that fines people to one that doesn’t.

It’s hard to think about efficiency and responsiveness when you are forking over money to an agency run by the same entity that taxes you. And it’s just as hard to worry about inefficiency when the reason you are getting a cheap computer or a super saver flight is because the company is supposedly running a lean ship.

That’s why the weight of evidence won’t change the conventional wisdom even though the conventional wisdom has ceased to be correct.

Yet it would be nice to live in a world where all government services were efficient and responsive.

And we know that they can be because of the examples of parking enforcement, taxation, Passport control and liquor. Efficiency and responsiveness should not have to depend on penalties and revenue streams.

And who knows? Maybe then the private sector could follow suit and get its own act together….

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