If You Love your Government, Don’t read this


If You Love your Government, Don’t read this

I was railing below about the difficulties that municipal governments have dealing with the business of parking. It wasn’t meant as a criticism as much as an observation. It seems to me that except for a few things, the government, in general, doesn’t execute tasks very well. And the higher we go on the government totem pole the worse it gets. I guess you could read that, the larger the government is that is dealing with a problem, the worse job they seem to do.

We have seen examples of this at every level. A small city like Santa Monica or Culver City here in Southern California have beautiful streets and well-kept downtowns while gargantuan Los Angeles, literally across the street is struggling to repair pot holes and is bound up in knots when it comes to enforcing and collecting parking fines.

I was thinking about the federal government the other day and it just seems like about the only thing that runs well and completes its mission with any validity is the military, the uniformed military. That is not to say that that there isn’t waste, because of course there is, but when you think of the “dogs breakfast” the state department has made of our international relations over the past decade, or the fact that FEMA couldn’t deal with Katrina (It took the military to clean up that mess.)

Take a gander at the energy situation, or our labor issues, or the agriculture disaster. There are huge government departments that deal with them all, but to no avail. Closer to home, I have a friend who tore a tendon on the job and it took four weeks for government run insurance (workers comp) to get him operated on. Schools in small districts seems to do pretty well, but the larger district (can you say New York, DC, St Louis, Los Angeles) are disasters.

I was reading an article this morning by some wag who pointed out that if the government was put in charge of the Sahara desert, there would be a sand shortage in five years.

So what’s my point? Funny how large businesses seem to succeed and thrive in spite of their size – Can you say Microsoft, IBM, Toyota, MacDonald’s, Wal Mart, Exxon, Delta. Pfizer.

Although each of these companies make or sell “stuff” be it software, computers, cars, hamburgers, or drugs, in the end they also make something else, profit. If they don’t make a profit, they close. Sure the software and burgers are important, but they know that if they don’t make good software and quarter pounders, and meet the needs of their customers, they will find that folks will go to Apple, or Dell, or Nissan, or Burger King, Target, or United. People in the private sector have choices, and to be successful, companies have to ensure that they provide choices that people want. If they don’t, no profit, and no company.

Folks who deal with the government have no choices. You deal with one school district, one post office, one water department, one worker’s comp insurance company, one DMV, one group that fixes streets, or responds to disasters. I wonder how long the post office would be in business if it didn’t have Uncle Sam to bail it out financially and if Fedex or UPS could legally deliver first class mail. The other thing that those large (and small) successful companies have that is missing in the government is that at every level of the management, there are people whose jobs depend on making that profit, and ensuring customers are happy and don’t go away. If profit is down, if the numbers don’t meet goals, often divisions are closed but at the least, the leaders are replaced.

It doesn’t work quite that way in government.

I wonder what would happen if the parking departments in cities large and small had two missions. The first was to attract customers and reduce complaints and the second was to be profitable. What if they weren’t restricted in how they approached the parking problems in cities? What if those two requirements were all that was important (attract customers/reduce complaints and be profitable?) It could just reinvent how we think about the government and what can be accomplished when people are given free reign. Many will succeed, some will fail. But the failures will be weeded out quickly and replaced by folks who will be successful.

Just Sayin…

OK, let me have it….you parking directors out there. I’m tough, I can take it.


Picture of John Van Horn

John Van Horn

7 Responses

  1. In our fair city, we brought our meter collections inside, after years of contracting out. Including hiring two full time staff, with benefits, and buying a collection vehicle, we have cut our collection costs in HALF. I consider this entrepreneurial exercise a success.
    Btw, the money from our meters and citations goes to the Transportation Dept. It’s used to pave streets, fill potholes, light streetlights and traffic signals.

  2. There’s more to running a parking system than attracting customers and being profitable in both private and public environments. Let’s start with private – you’re running a garage for a class A office tower and you’re frustrated because the Owner keeps abating parking fees in a down economy, even though you can sell those spaces to existing tenants at full price. Sure, you’re making less profit, but when you consider the bigger picture – like the financials of the office building rather than just the garage – the net effect is better than a bunch of empty office space.
    Now look at public operations. What has the biggest effect on the city: Higher property values or higher parking profits? If you focus on creating higher property values, the effect on revenues is exponentially higher than an increase in parking profits – and it’s longer term. So in order to increase property values, maybe you don’t raise your on-street rates to create vacancy. Maybe you create the vacancy using time limits instead of popping rates 50% or 100%. Sure, it’s not an efficient way to do things and it costs a ton of money to enforce, but the end result is more parking vacancy, which creates more customers who spend money and this all eventually works its way out to the property valuation.
    So if you’re going to have goals (and I agree that releasing some of these parking professionals to do their jobs is a fantastic idea), you can’t restrict them to just the parking operation – you have to look at the bigger picture as well.

    1. , business ownres that leave downtown often blame their lack of success on parking, whether it be paid parking or lack of space, but that’s the way people are and I don’t generally buy it. I get calls from city council members and the press when this happens and since I’ve already worked with the business owner, I can give a compelling rebuttal that shows we did everything we could. There isn’t ever a follow-up story bashing parking and justifying the business owner’s reason for leaving.

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