Why investing in the public sector matters

Monday - 10/14/2013, 12:09pm EDT

Commentary by David Bray
Chief Information Officer
Federal Communications Commission

This column was originally published on David Bray's blog, dbray.org, and was republished here with permission from the author.

This month the company that built the latest smartphone game "Candy Crush Saga" gets ready for a potential $5 billion IPO, while our nation cannot reach a compromise on how to fund itself. This disconnect in investment dollars — billions of investment dollars for a smartphone game vs. a furlough of hundreds of thousands of government workers whose total salaries in the last shutdown 17 years ago did not even approach one-tenth of Candy Crush Saga's expected IPO — presents a very troubling question about the future of we the people of the United States.

Specifically, could we the people have a successful private sector without similar investment in the public sector?

David Bray, Chief Information Officer, Federal Communications Commission

Imagine a few days without any public sector: we the people might not notice anything lacking since our government funds provide for local and national services that are neither "shiny" nor sensationalistic. These behind the scenes services include education of the U.S. workforce, research into new medical treatments to save lives, law enforcement to stop serious crime, safety certification of the cars we drive and planes we fly, just to name a few.

Imagine a few weeks in: we the people might raise concerns when an international trade dispute emerges with a foreign country raising high tariffs on U.S. exports, hurting the ability of our products to be sold overseas. Foreign commercial companies start shipping very cheap, and uninspected for quality, parts to the U.S. that make their way into our homes, cars, roads, planes and bridges. Consumers have to deal with the uncertainty of uninspected food and unpredictable food prices as farmers, in turn, lack crop insurance for droughts or floods and confront price under-cutting by other nations.

Imagine a few months further: we the people might notice unemployment or substantial salary drops as companies are forced to lay off U.S. workers to compete with cheaper, though substandard, goods from overseas. Consumers with funds and time for non-essential goods and services dwindle to a small few. Homes and cars built with these substandard goods start collapsing, catching fires, or other hazards. At the same time, serious crime begins to increase, from both a lack of public services working to encourage adults and teenagers to choose alternative paths in their lives and a lack of law enforcement dollars to ensure safe neighborhoods.

Within a year: we the people might confront a deluge of fraud and con artists like Madoff or Ponzi, now that no public servants exist to detect stock market or deter mutual fund manipulators. Banks, now free of regulation, might return to more risky, short-term investments such that if or when another global financial shock occurs they go insolvent. Those consumers who still have jobs that pay well keep most of their money "under their mattresses" at home instead of in a bank which lacks an FDIC guarantee of their hard-earned dollars, thus reducing the liquidity of the financial system and stock market. With no public service monitoring for infectious diseases, outbreaks like measles, cryptosporidium, whooping cough, meningitis, or Legionnaires' disease go unabated, not stopping at county, state, or national borders. Medicines sold in the U.S. lack any inspection as to their legitimacy, effectiveness, or side effects and both child and adult mortality increases.

In two to three years without a public sector: we the people might face a huge increase in the number of homeless and vagrant, and rioting heretofore only seen in developing nations with an increasingly uneducated workforce. Any type of education, now no longer provided by public service, depends on families having sufficient funds to pay for private schools — funds that depend on having jobs that afford to pay for such private tutors — jobs that depend on having the necessary education to obtain such well-paying jobs, and thus a tailspin ensues. Individuals born with talent to impoverished families fail to receive even basic elementary education to read, write, and achieve their potential, the U.S. misses out on the next Thomas Edison, Jonas Salk, Colin Powell, Oprah Winfrey, Larry Page, or Marissa Mayer. We fail to attract foreign talent, so we miss the next Albert Einstein or Andrew Carnegie — instead, other nations with better social services pull those people and families to immigrate to them.

Finally, over the next decade: we the people might face a series of economic crashes due to discontinued investment in transportation, communications and research to support commerce. With no public services monitoring the skies or the public safety of road construction, the number of crashes increase and commercial infrastructure deteriorates. With no public service monitoring use of wireless and wired communications, substandard devices blocking television signals, radio waves and Internet communications pop up everywhere fragmenting quality of service. With no funding of science research, commercial ventures lack breakthroughs in basic science on which they can pursue applied research for cures for cancer, better electronics, new materials and other innovations that increase U.S. competitiveness in a global marketplace.

If government embodies the nonprofit activities that we do since we cannot do them by ourselves — the stability, liquidity and vibrancy of 21st century commerce is built on several of these "nonprofit activities."

The U.S. has succeeded in building a civil society that trains and attracts talented workers who work at, innovate at, and earn paychecks to pay goods and services from companies like Costco, Procter & Gamble, Whole Foods, Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson, Google, Apple, Amazon.com and more. The more high-paid workers we have working at and earning paychecks from U.S. companies, the larger the pool of funds to support IPOs of new companies, including the potential $5 billion IPO of Candy Crush Saga this month.

Yet often overlooked and unspoken is the role of public services in providing all the services needed to ensure the stability, liquidity, and vibrancy of 21st century commerce and talented workforce for our nation. It is almost as if we the people have bought-in to the "self-made man" (or woman) myth and completely neglected the increasing interconnectedness and dependencies in our world where in fact, as John Donne put it, "no man is an island." The success of the U.S. private sector is connected to a healthy U.S. public sector, and we are letting our public sector deteriorate.

On the Air: David Bray discusses his commentary with In Depth host Francis Rose.

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This year U.S. stock markets neared all-time highs, while at the same time the City of Detroit filed for bankruptcy. Public servants, including those with the Department of Defense, were furloughed for days this summer — and again this fall — at the same time Forbes reported a record number of 1,426 billionaires with total net worth of $5.4 trillion up from $4.6 billion previously. Yes, creating value to consumers and shareholders should be celebrated, however are we investing in the right places?

Are we investing in those services that create value for the public, on which 21st century commerce depends? If we the people of the United States want to play the "long game" vs. a short, shiny one — we may need to rethink our priorities. Commerce is important, however we now live in a world in which a deluge of 24/7 for-profit news and 140-character Twitter feeds distract us from more thoughtful, examined stories of the interconnections in our lives. It is much easier to glorify the sale of Tumblr for $1.1 billion or Instagram for $1 billion, while the civil services and public servants girding successful startups, entrepreneurs and IPOs go bankrupt.

We the people have forgotten our shared history. We have forgotten a time in which polio, thyroid or smallpox killed, or when cars lacked regulations requiring seat belts or air bags also resulting in increased deaths. We have forgotten a time when food or the materials used to build our homes were not inspected for quality, or when the solvency of our savings in banks was not guaranteed.

We celebrate the Internet today without recognizing the tax dollars that paid for the early computer research, precursor software and advances in microchips funded by government agencies in the '70s and '80s that enabled the commercial and consumer applications today. Pundits complain about the inefficiency or slowness of civil processes without recognition that Federal Papers No. 51 wanted "ambition to counter ambition" because they wanted bureaucratic turf to prevent the consolidation of too much power to any one individual.

We enjoy a high standard of living in the U.S. because we the people chose to play the "long game" after the Great Depression in the hopes it would never happen again, to include civil programs to train workers and build a nation infrastructure that encouraged commerce. After World War II, we chose to commit government funds to science, mathematics and engineering education to achieve breakthroughs that fueled U.S. companies, high-tech consumer goods and innovative services. The U.S. won the Cold War demonstrating that a representative form of government paired with a capitalist economy was superior to a centrally planned, communist government and economy.

With success, though, we the people of the U.S. forgot all that we gained by partnering public service with the private sector. The role of civil service became a topic of downsizing and public servants subjected to furloughs and pay freezes. We the people discouraged talent from entering public service, encouraging talent instead to become contractors at a higher-cost to the taxpayer or pursue careers on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley.

We have forgotten the "long game" — our standard of living is at risk of deteriorating because we have forgotten the success of the U.S. private sector is connected to a healthy U.S. public sector.

In this lapse of memory, the message Congress is sending — with the latest furloughs and shutdown — to a potential new generation of government workers is: if you have passion about making a positive difference, this is not the place for you. If you want to help the public sector and our nation compete in a global economy, if you are creative and have good leadership traits — we do not value you; instead, we see you as a burden to the taxpayers.

The message we are sending with the continued furloughs and pay freezes will discourage talent from remaining in the public sector. Our "dis-investment" in the public sector will accelerate the erosion of infrastructure necessary to ensure the U.S. retains its competitive workforce, infrastructure and services required for 21st century commerce to thrive.

Right now, we the people are woefully lopsided in our investment in the private vs. public sector. There may be good reasons for how we ended up lopsided: the visible returns from the private sector are immediate, more visceral and personal compared to returns from the public sector. We can make individual choices where we want to put our investments in the private sector, whereas the public sector requires pooling our money. Pooling public sector investment means our money is placed into civil service investments with which we might not personally agree. Yet these lopsided investments have to end, and if we are to be a representative democracy vs. either an oligarchy or dictatorship, we must accept that sometimes elected representatives will make choices different from our own.

We must also recognize that, barring public service without any human participants, it will be less than perfect, as recognized in the Federalist Papers No. 51:

"… what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary…"

Yet with this recognition, we still should diligently strive for increased effectiveness, excellence, and accountability to the U.S. public. Doing this requires attracting talented, creative workers with leadership skills into public service — a hard sell to do in the midst of sequestration, salary freezes and furloughs with no hope of ever having a billion-dollar IPO. If we do not attract talented workers, our public service will not adapt to the changing dynamics of a global, interconnected world and our nation's common infrastructure and services necessary for 21st century commerce to continue to thrive.

To fix our neglected and unbalanced public sector portfolio: perhaps we solve this problem by blurring the lines between the public and private sector, allowing greater partnerships between the sectors for mutual benefits?

Perhaps as part of a three-way dialogue among the U.S. public, the private sector and civil servants we discuss how the work of civil services could be redesigned to encourage greater grassroots participation and greater visibility into what public servants are doing for the benefit of we the people. Perhaps we enable more government agencies to recoup costs in providing their services through transaction-based fees, licenses, or other measures more directly linked to the service provided than taxes, which to the public appear abstracted from the benefits provided?

Perhaps we encourage the MacArthur, Gates, or Ford Foundations to recognize outstanding government institutions and individuals who chose a path of furloughs, freezes, and no IPOs because they believe in public service. Or perhaps we encourage two or three-years of public service in some form, locally or nationally, as a bridge between schooling and employment, fostering a greater sense of civil engagement, addressing youth unemployment, and bringing a wealth of new ideas into public institutions?

All of these possibilities represent solutions much better than a shutdown, and much better than continuing to neglect and undervalue the work products and services of creative, talented workers — often invisible — who chose to work in the public sector. We must readjust our investment portfolio before the benefits our robust public sector historically provided to gird our private sector are eroded in a global marketplace. We must attract, recruit, and retain talent in our public sector to help it adapt to 21st century challenges and new opportunities.

Most importantly, we the people must remember what history taught us — continuing a successful, thriving U.S. private sector requires a similar investment in a successful, thriving public sector. Without it, "we the people" are no longer we.

Copyright 2013 by David Bray. All rights reserved.


David A. Bray currently serves as chief information officer at the Federal Communications Commission and is one of two public service executives to receive the Roger W. Jones Award for Executive Leadership later this month. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of nor should they be attributed to any government agency. This narrative is solely from his leadership blog maintained at dbray.org; no official endorsement is implied.