Viewpoint: Why education is not like business

How does government measure the value it delivers? Certainly it takes money into account, and often this is subject to healthy debate among the citizenry as to the level of its spending. However, the real problem is that it is extremely difficult to measure the value of government output. This is driven by two distinct problems:

  • The fundamental difficulty in measuring the value (and agreeing on the value) of areas such as security, education, happiness, community, convenience, and recreation. Everyone values each of those things, but try to get people to tell you how much they are worth. They are fundamentally difficult to measure, and impossible to get agreement on.
  • Government services affect an extremely long time horizon. Although businesses might do three- to five-year strategic plans, government services can affect people’s lives decades after they are delivered. How does the education I provide a kindergartener today affect his or her life 20 years from now? And how does it affect other people’s lives, in terms of economic growth, crime, and in other areas? Although few would argue that there isn’t such a long-term connection, it is daunting to try to measure that connection and nearly impossible for the citizenry to take that into account when asking governments to make decisions today that affect theirs and others’ lives decades from now.

I believe capitalism is a beautiful thing. But it is clearly not perfect. Capitalism is conditioned upon the free flow of information, capital, and resources (the last being the most difficult), and it fails in certain areas like externalities and natural monopolies. And, because they are run by fallible people, businesses are also fallible. Whether it be oil spills, unsafe toys, or financial market manipulation, capitalism does not, in and of itself, protect the citizenry from unscrupulous or manipulative behavior. Therefore, government is in the odd position of both being a promoter of capitalism (providing the regulatory environment to promote business and innovation) but also acting as the check on its potential excesses. Only the most orthodox of Libertarians would suggest that we shouldn’t have a Food and Drug Administration with at least some regulation on the safety of our food.

All of this analysis is not to suggest that government can’t learn from business. Quite the contrary. Many innovations and methodologies developed in private enterprise have been and should be adopted by many government agencies. But we must recognize that government will always be a laggard by design.

One also should not conclude that public agencies are beyond criticism—of course not. There are legitimate differences in what we all value, and it’s reasonable to debate the role of our government agencies and the decisions made by our elected leaders. It’s also very reasonable to debate whether we should even have a certain government service, and if so, how much we should spend on it. However, in having this debate, we should remember the role of government and how it is distinct from many of our own experiences in business. It is unfair (and unproductive) to criticize our public agencies for doing what they are designed to do; instead, we should focus the debate on those things that are within their design—what do we value as a community, and what are the long-term effects of government decisions made today.

Seth Rosenblatt is a school board member in San Carlos, Calif., and he also serves on the board of the San Mateo County School Boards Association. For his day job, he is a strategy and marketing consultant for technology companies.

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