There’s a news story about Governor Paterson’s “plan” to lay off some 900 state workers. The big hits are to the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Office of Parks, Recreation, & Historical Preservation. As is usual, the politicians have “ideas” about it. One of them was “privatization” of the state campgrounds and some of the park facilities. Let’s call it what it is: Outsourcing. Hire someone – or let someone pay you – to do something you’ve been doing yourself. It’s been a popular idea for the better part of two decades in various areas, both private and public.
What’s my problem with it? It generally doesn’t work. I used to work in the tech sector, and one of the dirty little secrets in the tech sector is that an astonishing percentage of outsourcing deals are abject failures. At one time, it was over 75% of them. More recent figures show that it’s down to just over 50%. Think about that for a moment. In a sector where supposedly executives are aware of what they’re doing, over one in two contracts end up being failures. That’s the improvement that you see over the course of a decade. Well, the public sector does better on that, right? Not really. All one has to do is read the news, and you’re inundated with stories of cost overruns, poor management, lack of accountability, and poor service. That’s if the company that has the contract hasn’t decided that it’s not making enough money, and bails on the deal.
What I distinctly noticed in the article was that no one in the government is suggesting selling the properties themselves. In some cases, the state can’t sell them – it’s forbidden by the state constitution. Which means that while the state gets the opportunity to move the personnel costs “off the books,” they are still responsible for everything else. Anyone who thinks that a company which does not have an ownership stake in the property is going to do much to the infrastructure is dreaming. They’ll do the absolute minimum they can, and if it’s not specifically in the contract, they won’t. Given the infrastructure problems that already exist, it just means further deterioration, if not accelerated deterioration.
I’ve been through several evaluation processes for outsourcing services in my life, as well having been a contractor. That’s the reason every alarm bell I had went off when I was reading that story. The idea of “privatization,” or what it really is, outsourcing, is that someone else will perform a service that you used to perform, but do it as well and cheaper. Which is usually where things fall apart. The people who negotiate and monitor the contracts are not the people who know the services needed very well. In NY’s case, it’d be the Office of Government Services, which, one might note, is not the OPRHP or the DEC. From the business’ standpoint, they’re going to try to move as much out of the “standard services” section and into the “extra services” as they can. Extra’s cost more money, and are more profitable. The end result? The “cheap” and “cost saving” turns into a poorly managed, expensive disaster. Does it have to happen that way? No, but that’s the way it will happen. It’s a guaranteed recipe, whenever senior executives leap to the conclusion that they can save money by doing it.
The practical side is that hiring someone to run and staff your parks just means that they will do just that – at the lowest level they can. Which leads to the other issues. These are state parks. One of the things I remember getting told in new employee briefings was “remember, you represent the state.” Which, if it’s privatized, they don’t. They represent their employer, who is not the state. There’s a difference. There are also legal and regulatory issues. There are a number of tasks and responsibilities which the state has added to the plate of the parks over the years, like invasive species education and control, recycling efforts, in addition to enforcing various regulations. State employees have certain authority given to them by law and regulation for those purposes. Private contractors don’t. Which means that it won’t be done, or the state is going to have to assign people to the parks for that purpose.
All of that is why I oppose the idea of privatizing our parks. Instead of really evaluating our park systems, and looking at what is really needed – and yes, some parks may have to be closed or sold – along with developing a long term funding plan, they’re going with a quick and dirty “fix” which will cause serious problems down the line – and not that far down the line.