AN OVERVIEW OF PRIVATIZATION

ABSTRACT: Privatization of public services or “outsourcing” has been promoted for decades as a way to save taxpayers money, improve public services, and increase public sector accountability. A resurgence is occurring as the public sector is being squeezed by falling revenues and rising costs. In this environment, privatization is often looked to to generate badly needed cash immediately. As a result, privatization is big business these days.

As background for a detailed look at current privatization activity, municipal level privatization has been used significantly and studied quite extensively, especially for water and sewer systems and for solid waste collection and disposal. From 1997 – 2002, more services were brought back in house or deprivatized than were outsourced. Services were deprivatized because of unsatisfactory results. Most studies of water, sewer, and solid waste privatization (21 of 35) found no cost or efficiency difference between public or private delivery. The other 14 studies were split.

Competition and careful monitoring are required to obtain benefits from privatization and to ensure that profit maximization doesn’t result in a loss of quality. A review of privatization by The Century Foundation [1] states that “public monopoly or government regulation is a more effective approach to ensuring efficient service delivery than privatization or deregulation.”

The delivery of public services must incorporate the fact that citizens are more than consumers. They frequently want to be engaged and have a voice. Public services are not just part of a market but part of a community.

FULL POST: Privatization of public services or “outsourcing” has been promoted for decades as a way to save taxpayers money, improve public services, and increase public sector accountability. A resurgence is occurring as the public sector is being squeezed by falling revenues and rising costs, much of which are due to inflation. In this environment, privatization is often looked to not for the traditional reasons of saving money or improving services and accountability, but to generate badly needed cash immediately. In this environment, privatization of public assets (e.g., buildings, parking facilities, roads, and land), which has been used in the past to cover short-term cash problems, has taken on new importance.

The privatization resurgence is bolstered by rhetoric from the right, which favors smaller government, and by lobbying from corporations, which are always looking for new ways to make profits.

As a result, privatization is big business these days. Wall Street firms and the big management consulting companies have public sector or public private partnership business divisions to pursue privatization deals. Financial corporations are setting up “Infrastructure Funds” that create pools of money to buy privatization deals as investments. Over $100 billion is available to Infrastructure Funds run by large financial corporations such as Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase.

As background for a detailed look at current privatization activity, municipal level privatization has been used significantly since the 1960s and surged in the 1990s. It has been studied quite extensively, especially for water and sewer systems and for solid waste collection and disposal. These studies have tracked privatization, the contracting out of services, and deprivatization, the bringing of services back in house into the public sector. An overall review of privatization of 67 basic local services with a focus on water, sewer, and waste services was conducted by The Century Foundation. [2]

Up until 1997, privatization of water, sewer, and waste services was growing, but from 1997 – 2002 more services were brought back in house or deprivatized than were outsourced. The reasons for deprivatization were tracked. In 2002, among 245 cases of deprivatization the following reasons were given, including multiple reasons in many cases:

  • Service quality not satisfactory                                            73% of cases
  • Cost savings insufficient                                                       51%
  • In house efficiency improved                                               36%
  • Problems with contract monitoring or specifications             35%

In summary, services were deprivatized because of unsatisfactory results. Furthermore, despite the fact the privatization is promoted as reducing costs and saving taxpayers money, most studies of water, sewer, and solid waste privatization (21 of 35) found no cost or efficiency difference between public or private delivery. The other 14 studies were split with 9 of the 35 finding private delivery cheaper or more efficient and 5 finding public delivery cheaper or more efficient.

The Century Foundation report notes that competition and careful monitoring are required to obtain benefits from privatization and to ensure that profit maximization doesn’t result in a loss of quality. However, it noted that in many cases, such as water and sewer services, there was no competition and privatization merely substituted a private monopoly for a public one. The report states that “public monopoly or government regulation is a more effective approach to ensuring efficient service delivery than privatization or deregulation.” (page 12)

The delivery of public services, even when privatized, must incorporate the fact that citizens are more than consumers. They frequently want to be engaged and have a voice in what, how, and the quality with which services are delivered. From a citizen’s perspective, more than just efficiency is involved; safety, reliability, transparency, and other values; local control; public accountability; and community identity can all be important. Public services are not just part of a market but part of a community.

Future posts will build on this overview and review specific examples of current and proposed privatization of public services and assets.


[1]       The Century Foundation describes itself as a progressive, non-partisan think tank, founded in 1919. It convenes and promotes the best thinkers and thinking across a range of public policy questions and produces timely and critical analyses of major economic, political, and social institutions and issues.

[2]      Warner, M., 2009, “Local government infrastructure and the false promise of privatization,” The Century Foundation, http://government.cce.cornell.edu/doc/pdf/Warner_2009_TCF.pdf

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2 comments

  1. harry simmons · · Reply

    Timely subject. First paragraph, 1st sentence, should say “— a possible way to save taxpayer money—. We should not promote something that is debatable or many times not true…. Your following write-up bears this out.
    Harry

    1. Harry, you are absolutely right! Some people have promoted privatization by asserting that it would save money, improve services, and increase accountability, but that’s ideology not rationality. Rationally, it is a possible way to achieve these goals and as the post makes clear, that doesn’t always turn out to be true. More to follow on this topic.

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