The devastation of Hurricane Maria’s humanitarian disaster has sparked public debate over the US government’s response. As Puerto Ricans suffer without potable water, food, or air conditioning, President Trump lamented that the Puerto Rican people “want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.” He also attacked the mayor of San Juan for “poor leadership.” Cue the usual cycle of outrage, counter-spin, and ever-deepening division.

But looking beyond disaster response, Trump’s comments inadvertently touch on an important question: How should we be thinking about the role of government in delivering services to the American people?

Delivering Public Services

Practitioners and researchers alike have spilled no small amount of ink on how precisely to define relations between citizens and states, and more narrowly on what role America’s federal government should play in service delivery. Indeed, the question of precisely whether and how the US government should deliver optimal services is not new. To address the size and complexity of governance, Former President Woodrow Wilson wrote in his 1887 “The Study of Administration” article: “There should be a science of administration which shall seek to strengthen the paths of government, to make business less unbusinesslike, to strengthen and purify its organization, and to crown its duties with dutifulness.” Bureaucracy and the professionalization of the functions of governance defined the Wilsonian era. The Progressive Era that followed argued for both a stronger government and government that worked for people to rein in abuses of corporate power and bring Americans a better way of life.

Relatively new, however, is the focus on innovation within government—a topic that has captured the heart of academia across many disciplines (including political science, public administration, management, and business) and has been taken up by many countries (New Zealand is often credited as an early modernizer, with the Thatcher and Reagan revolution not far behind). This spirit of innovation may provide the needed fuel to re-examine government service delivery in the United States.

But where to begin? In 1997, Professors Gerald E. Smith and Carole A. Huntsman created a framework that offers insight into today’s service delivery debate. Smith and Huntsman examine several core models of citizen-government relationships and ultimately question the idea of citizen as consumer. Their insight seems especially relevant in light of the election of Trump, a businessperson who ran on a campaign to operate America like a business. The Trump Administration has repeatedly called into question: Do people want America to run like a business? And if so, what are the values that guide this enterprise?

Citizen as Consumer

Starting in the 1980s, new public management concepts supplanted traditional notions of public management. Under this schema, public managers are encouraged to “steer not row.” The underlying philosophy is that a combination of tools—including free markets, regulation, taxes, and subsidies—can best deliver services to the recipients of these services—or as many scholars, including Professor Lester Salamon, have called them, “customers.” In theory, this way of thinking would unburden public managers from bureaucracies so that they could be “entrepreneurial” and part of a new, leaner, and increasingly privatized government.

A central component of this model is the incorporation of private sector and business approaches into the public sector—and it’s been popular among both Democrats and Republicans. The Clinton administration and Al Gore, for example, spearheaded the Reinventing Government Movement and the National Performance Review to “make government work better and cost less.” David Osborn and Ted Gaebler’s 1993 “Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is Transforming the Public Sector” meanwhile became a definitive text. Presidents George W. Bush and Obama both created initiatives that focused on innovation and entrepreneurship. In March, President Trump unveiled his American Office of Innovation, led by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, which seeks to apply business practices to “the business of government.”

Government has a lot to learn from the lean and creative efficiency of the private sector, including how to incentivize talent, effectively use digital tools, and invest in leadership. The question is how to marry the best innovative practices and entrepreneurial spirit from across industries with a broader philosophy that supports shared democratic principles.

A challenge with the citizen-as-consumer model is that it provides a shallow analysis of the roles and responsibilities of the customer. Being a member of a democracy is more nuanced than purchasing goods or chatting with your friends online. People expect things from government, and things like public utilities, disaster relief, universal social policy such as education, healthcare, and clean drinking water, are not always driven by a bottom line.

Another problem is that the model assumes customers will be good citizens. In Professor Donald F. Kettl’s analysis of the 1994 National Performance Review, he remarked on the concept of customer service in government: “The concept is poorly developed, and over-enthusiastic rhetoric has often substituted for clear thinking.”

Toward a Value-Driven Model

Other paradigms for assessing the relationship between citizens and the state include what Professors Gerald E. Smith and Carole A. Huntsman dub the “value model.” This model may provide the most promising way forward when it comes to government services. They describe it this way, “Citizens are shareholders of the community enterprise, and government is a trustee, steward, and manager of the enterprises assets, programs and services that deliver value to its citizen investors.” Professor Mark Moore has also written about the role and responsibility of public managers to generate “public value.” Underlying both of these perspectives is the idea that people are neither owners nor consumers, but part of the larger project of government. And according to Smith and Huntsman, the government, in turn, creates value in three core ways:

  • It identifies sources of value to citizens. For example, communities value affordable health insurance.
  • It delivers high-quality government services, such as hurricane relief, safe streets, and high-speed, affordable broadband.
  • It helps invest in the capital asset base of the community, including parks, infrastructure, and facilities.

Rather than individual proprietors, citizens are co-investors and shareholders. The value model incorporates aspects of user-centric design by seeking out the sources of value from people. But unlike the consumer model, the delivery of services is interwoven with a shared set of principles that have to benefit the community, not just the individual. This model requires a fundamental level of trust in public officials (who need to execute on behalf of a large set of norms) and in one another (to build a shared framework).

This weekend, on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, Co-anchor Michael Che told President Trump to provide aid to Puerto Rico “and write them a check with our money.” If all citizens are shareholders, we have a communal and participatory interest in our country.

Putting Values Back into Service Delivery

Government needs to innovate and adapt to 21st-century tools, approaches, and models. We all want government to function better and more effectively serve the American people, but while a private sector approach to governing is captivating, it won’t get us to where we need to go by itself. Unlike a corporation generating zero-sum returns, the government is not a business; it is the people’s government. Government is a manifestation of citizens’ preferences, and citizens should be empowered as co-producers of government services and goods. At a time of widespread disillusionment with government and a president who stokes anger and resentment in areas inside and outside traditional political battlefields, the answer is not to treat citizens more like customers.

Part of the public response to President Trump’s insensitive handling of Hurricane Maria was that it seemed to challenge some shared set of values held by the American people. The reaction was emotional and visceral. It wasn’t driven by spreadsheets or market predictions—it was about humanity. When visiting the devastation in Puerto Rico, Trump told people that funding relief efforts had thrown the government’s budget out of whack. After the comment fell flat, he added, “Which is fine.” At the end of the day, providing disaster relief is not only about the bottom line. It is about supporting and upholding shared values.

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