Viewpoint: Why education is not like business

The work of government is like sausage-making—slow, sloppy, and ugly at times. Why is that? I would argue there are two main reasons. The first is that it is the inevitable outcome of the government’s need to serve a broad constituency, as well as the need to reduce risk as described above. Serving a heterogeneous constituency and being more risk averse will always make things a little slower. However, the other reason lies in another fundamental tenet of government—openness. We see the sausage-making because we’re allowed to! As someone who has worked for many companies over the last couple of decades, there were countless very painful decision-making processes; however, none of them were visible to the public.

Business interactions are, by and large, secret. Compensation levels of most employees are secret; strategic plans are secret; computer code is secret, and the discussion at board of directors meetings is mostly secret. This secrecy—or at a minimum, the ability to choose what information is made public and what is not—is another cornerstone of capitalism. It allows companies to compete with each other, to shape their overall message to the market, and to manage their employees in the most flexible way. So, in most companies there is plenty of sausage-making, it’s just not visible to most of us.

Contrast this to public agencies, which by most measures are an open book. Board meetings of all elected bodies are held in public. All contracts are made public. All salaries are made public. The process to get bids on large projects is a public and inclusive process. From a businessperson’s perspective, these are all anathematic requirements—it would be viewed as impossible to run a real business that way. But this seeming lack of efficiency and flexibility is the price for openness. And after all, because these are public institutions funded with tax dollars, would we expect our citizens to want something less than transparency? (Obviously there are areas of government that are secret—which include things such as national war plans all the way to the identity of kids expelled from school—but in aggregate, the level of secrecy is miniscule compared to that in business. And that is how it’s supposed to be.) Even though governments are often accused of “waste, fraud, and abuse,” that is hardly limited to public institutions—it’s just that in the corporate setting, we don’t often hear about it.

Therefore, the very nature of the decision-making process of a public institution requires the input and participation of the public. Could you imagine a scenario where any Apple shareholder can get three minutes to address the board of directors of Apple at every board meeting (not just the quarterly shareholder meetings)? But the public process not only requires this, it benefits from it. The nature of bringing such a broad and diverse group of constituents into your decision-making process necessarily makes it slower and more complex.

It’s also important to note that in a corporation, most decision makers generally agree on the goal (i.e., making a profit). They might disagree on how to get there, but at least the end game is rarely in dispute. That is not true for government institutions—in any sizable group of citizens, there will be honest disagreements on the goal. Even within a small city, some citizens will favor high growth and more development, while others will want the opposite. Again, the institutions are designed to best serve the interests of the broadest group of people.

Measuring value

One makes decisions to affect value. The hope is that every decision we make enhances value somewhere, or why would we be making that decision? In business, every decision is about furthering the company’s mission. Fortunately, business has a common currency to measure that value—money. Profits are relatively easy to measure.

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