Running government like a business

I have a love-hate relationship with the politician’s promise to “run government like a business.” Even super-politician Bill Clinton once signed onto the concept. In the middle of an Apple plant tour in 1993, the ever-wily barometer of voter sentiment gushed to Cupertino’s whiz kids, “We oughta run government more like a business.” But more often than not, it’s my Republicans who advocate for this proposition.

As a Republican, it’s axiomatic to me, in the vein of “taxes should be lower” and we should “win the war on terror.” Government should operate more like an enterprise. But not everyone shares my values. The first time I was harshly reminded of this reality was in 1989 while conducting some focus groups for Indiana’s Dan Coats, Dan Quayle’s successor in the U.S. Senate. I had traveled to Mishawaka, Ind., to interview conservative Democrats, trying to see what themes and messages might seal the deal with realigning “Blue Dogs.”

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Mishawaka and St. Joseph County were tough venues, full of bitter workers who had suffered the first wave of industrial closings as jobs drifted south and overseas. As I moved the discussion toward the notion of running government like a business, one of these grizzled victims grumbled, “Like what business? Chrysler?” Touché, I thought. Fully 10 years after Chrysler got its first government bailout in 1979 (and had stopped putting screws into their slapdash pre-K-cars with hammers), it was still the poster child for business screw-ups, so much so that the Hemi-guys undermined the premise of making government run in a more businesslike manner.

Exploiting cynicism about “bad” businesses is still a quick and easy way to extinguish any heat and light generated by promises to run government like a business. Check this zinger line from last week’s Tallahassee Democrat, the local daily that serves Florida’s capital city: “The Legislature’s Republicans have fulfilled their longtime promise to run government like a business. State government now resembles a mix of Chrysler, Lehman Brothers and Bernie Madoff.” See what I mean? Running government like a business is the perfect setup line for comics and liberals to pivot on.

Does this mean that Republicans should abandon advocating for the idea or concept? Absolutely not! But we have to be smarter advocates, not teeing up the one-liner so that Democrats, union guys and late-night comedians can hit it like a Tiger Woods drive down the fairway. We’ve got to be smart chess players, to think at least two moves ahead and anticipate the Chrysler retort. At a minimum, we can take a lesson from Clinton and say we want to run government “more like a business,” not simply “like a business.” Many listeners might hear no difference in those two formulations, but some might.

Going forward, it might be useful to be even more direct: “We need to run government, and even big businesses, by the fundamental business principles that made America the greatest economy ever.” We should talk about “making government live within its means, just as responsible businesses are forced to do.” We must stress that government officials should be “held accountable,” just as the executives of public companies are.

And there is one other key aspect of running government like a business that Republicans too often forget to mention. Government needs to treat voters like they are “the boss” and “in charge.” Just as a corporate CEO listens to his board for direction and guidance, politicians need to listen to us, their board. Or, alternatively, government needs to treat citizens as “valued customers” worthy of improved service and respectful treatment. If government could embrace some of these principles from the business world, I know that voters could be easily drawn to the notion of running government like a business.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.