Privatization of government services has been going on for a long time, and everyone seems to have an opinion about it. For some time now, there have been proposals to privatize Medicare and Social Security, topics that loom large in the upcoming election and certainly will become important after it, given the state of the Federal budget.
We frequently hear nightmarish stories about privatization failures but more rarely do we hear about successes. Along with 227 other chapters across the country, the League of Women Voters of La Plata County studied the issue of government privatization. The consensus that was reached has resulted in a new LWV national position on privatization. The League can now review privatization issues as they arise at the local, state or national level and advocate for or against based on this new position. To read the position in its entirety go to www.lwv.org/content/privatization-position.
The study was not designed to answer the question of whether privatization is good or bad, but rather to tease out the issues that should be considered when privatization of a government service, asset or function is contemplated. The position reflects the fact that privatization is not black or white but a continuum of options, and that privatization works better in some contexts than in others.
Our local study committee examined as many of the state and national resources made available as was possible. The committee interviewed interim La Plata County manager Joann Spina, who herself has written on privatization; Ron LeBlanc, Durango’s city manager; Bruce Whitehead, executive director, Southwestern Water Conservation District and our former state senator; and Gene Bradley, board member of the Animas-La Plata Conservancy District.
What is privatization? Broadly speaking, privatization is the transfer of assets, functions and authority, in whole or part, from the government sector to the for-profit or nonprofit sector. Privatization can be considered as occurring any time the government gives up some amount of control in any of several different ways, ranging from deregulation, to the use of vouchers, subsidies and grants, all the way to outright sale of an asset and function to a private entity. Privatization can occur at the federal level, as with railroads, military security functions and the management of national parks; at the state level, with charter schools and prisons; to the local level, with animal control, medical oversight at the county jail, major construction and road improvement projects, and subcontracting for private sector expertise. Some of these have worked well, others have not. Some, such as privatization of prisons and military security, have had serious unintended consequences.
What makes the difference? The first two paragraphs of our position spell out our basic conclusions: “The League of Women Voters of the United States believes that when governmental entities consider the transfer of governmental services, assets and/or functions to the private sector, the community impact and goals of such transfers must be identified and considered. Further, the LWV believes that transparency, accountability and preservation of the common good must be ensured.
“The League believes that some government provided services could be delivered more efficiently by private entities; however, privatization is not appropriate in all circumstances. Privatization is not appropriate when the provision of services by the government is necessary to preserve the common good, to protect national or local security or to meet the needs of the most vulnerable members of society. While the League recognizes that the definition of core government services will vary by level of government and community values, services fundamental to the governance of a democratic society should not be privatized in their entirety. These services include the electoral process, justice system, military, public safety, public health, education, transportation, environmental protection and programs that protect and provide basic human needs.”
The position proceeds to list a number of considerations that should figure into any privatization discussion including the necessity of a tightly written contract with adequate provision and financing for oversight and for unwinding the contract should things go bad.
Look at our position, think through the issue for yourself and become active in the process as our elected officials consider divesting themselves of government assets, functions or authority, by any means along the privatization continuum.
Ellen Park is co-president of the League of Women Voters of La Plata County. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.