I know there are plenty of people out there who believe government is always too fat. They've never been in government, and many of them have never even attempted to run a business, let alone a municipal budget, but they're confident that government is too fat because some talk show host has told them it is.
Is it true that some government employees are slackers? I would answer that this way -- just as people in the private sector slack off, there are those in the public sector that do too. Whether it's taking extra time on a break, an extra long lunch hour, taking a few extra pens from the supply cabinet, or just staring non-productively at that picture of a loved one sitting on your desk, folks who do these things don't think of themselves as slackers or part of the problem. However, if they're in the public sector, there will always be people who point to the worst offenses and suggest that the entire position that person works in should be eliminated.
But here's the thing -- I have been in government and by and large, most of the employees that I know that worked with or for me were dedicated as well as productive.
There are a few different schools of thought in management. First there is the idea that you can browbeat your employees into submission until their morale improves. I call that method managerial incompetence, but there are folks that believe that method is the best. Then there is the method that I prefer where you give your employees good training and set sustainable goals with achievable benchmarks so they can succeed. When they do succeed, reward them.
Here's the problem with the first type of management style -- it is not sustainable. Employees do not leave companies, they leave bosses and a boss who prefers that management style will soon see his best employees leave.
All that being said, todays economy changes much of that. Even the best employees are concerned that they will not be able to find adequate work to maintain their current lifestyle if they leave for other employment. Compounding the problem is a low level of consumer confidence which reduces consumer purchases which in turn hurts the economy as a whole.
Just as businesses suffer, government does also. Lower property values and lower overall incomes means lower tax revenues. Even basics like road construction and police services are being looked at by municipal leaders across the state.
And yes, sometimes cuts are necessary. But what happens when you've been cutting core services all along? What happens when there is nothing left to cut except essential services. What happens when even the government safety net has holes in it?
Herein lies the differences between Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett's upcoming budget cuts and Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker's budget cuts. Barrett has always put a value on providing quality services at a reasonable price. Barrett is now faced with making tough cuts for tough times. Walker has used his entire time in office to browbeat department heads into making cuts which have resulted in a low level of services from Milwaukee County and now that times are bad, Walker is saying "no" to stimulus funding and ordering even more cuts.
In the private sector, which business model would be sustainable? Which would fail?
The answer should be clear, but still there are many who fail to understand that government has a role that can be productive, and yes, helpful. Businesses which continue to offer their services will fuel our economy. Businesses who choose to cut even essential services and productivity will be less likely to survive this economic downturn.
The problem here is that government does not run like the private sector. Walker is likely to continue to stay in his positions for years, possibly even decades to come. He will continue to blame others for his own managerial shortcomings and, if history is any indicator, voters will continue to reward him for playing the blame game. Nothing will change, and even when the economy improves, Walker will continue his same approach to governing. If you have only one game plan, and that plan is to consistently cut whenever he can get away with it, even in boom times he will follow his same plan.
Now with all of this being said, yes, now is the time when, like the private sector, local governments need to make tough choices to balance their budgets. And yes, cuts will need to be made.