The Business of Government

By Annise Parker*

Governing is often an impracticable job performed with insufficient tools by inadequately prepared people, sometimes in a system designed to prevent progress. Yet it is necessary; human beings in community must have a method of decision-making. Why, after thousands of years of trying, have we not perfected the process?

Certainly partisanship, ego, and ambition can taint any government body, but even factoring out those variables, governing is hard work. Cities are where government appears to work best. They are less partisan, more results oriented, and more innovative than states or the federal government. If the states are fifty experiments in democracy for America, then cities are thousands of such laboratories. For anyone interested in the mechanics of government, or opportunities for public service, cities are a great place to start. But even in cities the mechanics of government are challenging, frustrating and often Byzantine.

I regularly encounter young people who inform me they want to be elected someday. I always ask, “But what do you want to do?” There’s a difference between winning an election, holding an office, governing successfully and shaping the future. One doesn’t have to be in office to accomplish the latter. If you follow your passion, every level of government—and many government posts—offers both rewards and frustrations as well as the chance to make a difference. Cities function because they are the level at which government provides the essentials—including water, sanitation, and the like—for humans to physically coexist.

For some years now new officeholders—largely at the state and federal level—have entered public life with the idea that the less government we have the better. They decry an increasing regulatory burden and loudly proclaim that government must be run as a business.

I led Houston, the 4th largest city in the US and one of the most business-friendly, for six years as Mayor. I came into politics with 20 years of private sector experience in the oil industry and 10 years owning a small business. I know we must bring sound business principles to government, but government is not a business.

I was once invited to critique teams of graduate accounting students as they evaluated Houston’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR). One team grouped the city departments by revenue generation versus costs. Enterprise funds, such as the water and sewer system which is run as a self-funding business, got high marks. Alas, many departments had woefully small revenue streams. This logically lead to their recommendation that cost generation by a number of departments be increased to bring each into balance. Since one-third of the city’s $2 billion general fund went to the Houston police department, I simply asked how much they’d be willing to pay for a parking ticket?

Cities are service organizations. We cannot decide to cease providing critical services, nor, as we have recently witnessed in Flint, allow cost cutting to override public health. What is required is a shared understanding of the true cost of providing various services and the impact of loss of those services. We get what we pay for.

* Mayor Annise Parker served as Mayor of Houston, America’s 4th largest city, from 2010 to 2016. She is currently a Fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics.

Note: This is the second part of Annise Parker’s two-part series on government. Click here to read her earlier blog on smart infrastructure investment.

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