Public vs. Private

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

  • Kevin Spires

    You would think that bureaucracy was a feature, not a bug, of government. You probably provide a higher level of service - at a quarter of the cost. A great example of why the government should not be entrusted with anything that can be done by private corporations.

  • morganovich

    regarding schools (this is from a 1999 study)

    While the average U.S. school district spends nearly 62 percent of its budget on instruction, many large districts spend closer to 50 percent. Additionally, on average about 52 percent of school district employees are classroom teachers, but in Philadelphia, only 48 percent of district employees are classroom teachers, while only 40 percent of the Detroit workforce is composed of teachers in the classroom

    of interest, low % of employees being teachers appears (according to this study) to correlate to larger districts. so, rather than achieving economies of scale, they decent into bureaucratic morass. this is hardly a surprise to anyone who has studied government organizational structure. we see this same trend in programs taken away from states and run by the federal government.

    http://www.adti.net/education/antonucci.mission.creep.html

  • Fred Z

    "my bet would be that the total number of teachers is flat to down while the number of administrators and assistant principals have skyrocketed."

    Your real problem is finding anyone stupid enough to bet against you.

    Perhaps a teacher...

  • tomw

    The thing you politely haven't mentioned is the perks and benefits that the 'civil servant' is entitled to receive after their career. Guaranteed by us, with no 'bailout', nor any penalty for poor performance.
    Thirty and out ... retire at 50. This is not affordable. When civil servant pay was NOT equivalent to private industry, it was acceptable, apparently. Pay is equivalent, so the bennies should be adjusted, IMO.
    ugh.

    tom

  • SR

    "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."

    This seems to be a general trend. Here are MIT, there's a lot of furor over budget cuts, and one thing that jumped out at me was that while the number of professors has stayed flat, the number of admin staff (generally reviled for interfering with functioning student systems) has grown sharply.

  • Shenpen

    Bureaucracy is simply a way to buy voters. F.e. in Scotland around 23% of the employed people are employed in the public sector. Guess which way they tend to vote.

  • sabril

    I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that the state in question (and the organization in question) have a large percentage of black people.

    And that within the organization, most fall within 2 main categories: 1: Middle level administrators with poorly defined job responsibilities, i.e. no job responsibilities. 2: Low level paper-pushers who spend most of their time avoiding doing actual work.

    "but in Philadelphia, only 48 percent of district employees are classroom teachers, while only 40 percent of the Detroit workforce is composed of teachers in the classroom"

    Hmmm .. .. Philadelphia and Detroit. Again, I will go out on a limb and predict that the District of Columbia suffers from a similar problem.

  • Jess

    Interesting comments on school staffing, as a few of us were on this topic the other night ('round a few adult beverages, and don't ask how that subject came up). My 4 yr. HS (according to the Yearbook), w/1,888 students had a total staff (teachers, physical plant, admin) of 127. Today, our local HS w/2,122 students has a total staff of 274 full time (13 "guidance", 7 "security", among others), 31 part time, plus countless hours of "volunteer" work, and was recently described in the local 'rag as "understaffed".
    J

    P

  • DMac

    In Indianapolis, with failing test scores and a budget crunch, they are cutting costs the old fashioned way, boosting the Admin to teacher ratio by laying off teachers.

    "IPS announced that it had notified 300 teachers they could be laid off and that it was moving 60 administrators."

    While I'm generally pleased with the direction out state government is moving, under Gov. Daniels, including privatizing some functions, the Indy schools are a mess.

  • Jess

    sabril,
    I don't have the links handy, but a bit of searching will do - D.C. has approx 48K students, just over 8K Edu. employees, and 4K teachers.
    J
    PS - and a budget (next year) of $763M, or $16K per student/year. FWIW, the 763 figure does not include student transportation nor the DC "Office of the State Superintendent of Education" (I'm not making that up...)

  • dr kill

    The earnest idiot, Juan Williams at Fox News, has just discovered that his Boy's new administration is reactionary in education policy. He has a new column bemoaning this fact.

    As I told him in the comments, the entire rise and fall of city and suburb in the past 50 years can be explained by the public school system changing missions, from education of children to employment of Democrat voters.

    Don't get me started on teachers.

  • http://www.gameblackjack.org/ GameBlackjack

    Sometimes the bureaucracy sux!!!

  • Dan

    Interesting you wrote this, because just yesterday (4-21) the New York Times had a very good article noting that support staff at colleges and universities has risen dramatically in the last 20 years. From around 290,000 in 1988 to over 500,000 now. These support staff are contributing greatly to the higher cost of education, and some of their roles seem iffy at best.

  • Max Lybbert

    > we are prohibited by the Fair Labor Standards Act from accepting volunteer labor

    Out of curiosity, does this mean that scout troops, youth groups, and churches are not allowed to do service projects in the parks you manage? I fondly remember working on a few Eagle Scout projects in campgrounds (clean up litter, repair trails, replace bridges, etc.), although I can't say who owned the camp and who managed it.

  • Bryan

    >Out of curiosity, does this mean that scout troops, youth groups, and churches are not allowed to do service projects in the parks you manage? I fondly remember working on a few Eagle Scout projects in campgrounds (clean up litter, repair trails, replace bridges, etc.), although I can’t say who owned the camp and who managed it.

    Don't know about accepting regular service projects, but technically the requirements for an Eagle Scout project include...

    ...a service project helpful to your religious institution, school, or your community. (The project should benefit an organization other than the BSA.)

    The project also may not be preformed for a buisness or an individual, be of a commercial nature, or be a fund raiser.

  • http://www.galottoresults.com GALottoResults

    Good thanks for the info

  • CT_Yankee

    Just backing up my comment above with something out of today's news:

    Former NY state tax worker stole thousands of identities, opened phony credit card accounts

    http://www.nydailynews.com/news/ny_crime/2009/04/22/2009-04-22_former_ny_state_tax_worker.html

  • Max Lybbert
    I fondly remember working on a few Eagle Scout projects in campgrounds (clean up litter, repair trails, replace bridges, etc.), although I can’t say who owned the camp and who managed it.

    ... technically the requirements for an Eagle Scout project include "a service project helpful to your religious institution, school, or your community. (The project should benefit an organization other than the BSA.). The project also may not be preformed for a buisness or an individual, be of a commercial nature, or be a fund raiser."

    Assuming that passage hasn't changed since I was a scout, then I would assume that the campgrounds in question were owned either by my church or by the state (under an interesting definition of "community").

  • Sam L.

    Max, that requirement is essentially unchanged. Unless Coyote's company owns the parks he runs, those parks are OK for Eagle Projects.