I believe most of my regular readers know that in my day job I am involved in privatization of public recreation. For fairly obvious reasons, I never blog about the public recreation agencies with whom I work. In particular, I don't think its fair that an agency that is at least visionary enough to consider private management of its recreation have its dirty laundry spread all over my blog.
But there is one situation with a particular state parks organization that is driving me so crazy that I must share the story publicly, but I will do so without revealing the state. I have no reason to believe that what I describe is unusual.
The state parks organization runs a bit fewer than thirty parks and campgrounds, whereas our company runs over 150 public parks and campgrounds. Their total operation budget for parks is about the same as my company's annual expenses. The state parks organization gets about 20% of all its labor hours donated for free by volunteers, whereas we are prohibited by the Fair Labor Standards Act from accepting volunteer labor. Their parks are spread all over a large state, ours are spread from Washington to Florida.
By scale and scope, our company is reasonably considered larger and more complex, though the state has some reporting requirements I do not have. There are two major differences between us, though, which are telling:
- Including myself, our company has 3.5 people on the corporate staff with total corporate office space of about 700 sq ft. -- everyone else is dedicated to and works at a particular facility. This state parks organization has scores of people working in a dedicated headquarters building with tens of thousands of square feet of space.
- Demand for public recreation is booming, as people are looking for low cost recreation opportunities. Our pre-season camping reservations, for example, are at an all time high. We have had to scrape deep, but we are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in expansion money this year to address opportunities to serve more visitors. This state parks organization is cutting back parks. It has closed a number of parks, and plans to close more, and has cut most of its investment. To my knowledge, it has done nothing to address headquarters staff costs, nor is it able by state rules to take any credit in its budget for expected increases in park fee collections.
The staff level bureaucracy problem is just endemic to government. I would love to look at the growth of staffing of public schools by type of employee over the last 30 years -- my bet would be that the total number of teachers is flat to down while the number of administrators and assistant principals have skyrocketed.
Update: I have had parks employees writing me guessing that I was writing about their organization. They made the point that their parks organization is not comparable to ours, as their organization had been saddled with a number of non-recreation missions that were expensive (e.g. preservation, certain environmental goals, historical interpretation, etc) This is certainly true, though not of every parks organization or necesarily the one about which I was writing. But one could argue that this kind of mission creep is a failure point in public agencies. While there are incentives for this to occur in both public and private organizations, there are fewer corrective mechanisms in the publis sphere to push back. In fact, in the public sphere, new missions are a blessing because they often carry new funding. In the private sector, new missions threaten to dillute results and are more resented.