Climate change progress hinges on massive changes in behavior from both public and private sectors
While 2022 brought historic legislation to address climate change, the year’s end showed us why such investment is needed. The year ended with widespread infrastructure and organizational failures as blizzards trapped people in their homes and cars, many freezing to death. Rolling blackouts were common throughout the Southeast and travelers were trapped for days in airports around the country. The question remains: Can we deploy this massive, once-in-a-generation investment effectively and efficiently to address the climate challenge?
Doing so depends upon a set of actors and systems that are not necessarily ready for the task, and a public that needs to shift its own thinking about government, private industry and the use of taxpayer dollars. It is easy to use tax dollars to build new things — which we taxpayers generally embrace, but right now we need fewer new things and more investment in updating and modernizing what we already have. These last few weeks have shown us just how fragile our existing systems are.
We need large-scale changes in organizational culture and behavior, both from the private sector and from public agencies, to bring about the transformative societal and technological evolution required to meet this moment. Neither government nor private industry can do this alone. They need each other. Our history with electrification, transportation and sanitation, to name a few, tells us that we can do this. And this time, we can do it without repeating the injustices of the past.
This change begins with taxpayers. So often I hear people say we should treat public agencies like private industry. People who say this are looking for innovative, efficient public agencies that have little waste. But failing to recognize the core differences between public agencies and private industry lays the groundwork for large-scale failure in how we manage and implement this extraordinary investment.
One critical and core difference between public agencies and private industry is their objectives. Public agencies serve the public good; they aren’t driven by profit, like private industry is. This difference isn’t a bad thing. It means the mission and work of public agencies are consistently sustained, not subject to the fickle trends of the market or the frequently shifting whims of the political environment, but it also means that the flexibility we see in private industry is difficult to replicate in public agencies.
In private industry, leaders can more easily upgrade aged infrastructure and practices without a lot of push back from their boards or investors. The public agency? Taxpayers aren’t so gracious. We don’t get excited about upgrading existing power lines to carry larger loads of solar produced energy. We like to see new construction and demand stringent accountability from our public agencies. We expect the output that comes from modern, flexible public agencies with a young, innovative and highly skilled workforce, all without growing “big government” or offering competitive salaries. We rarely believe increasing public employee salaries is a good use of taxpayer dollars and then fail to make the connection when we have public agencies that are understaffed.
Most importantly, private industry is innovative in large part because failure is not a bad thing. Private industry has embraced the concept of “failing up” to the great benefit to us all. But public agencies? One failure, perceived as a misuse of taxpayer dollars, can be a career-ending proposition for many in public agency leadership. This doesn’t create the modern, flexible environment that taxpayers say they want from their public agencies. It is time we, as taxpayers, check ourselves in how we view the public agency and how we treat public employees. Public agencies need to be allowed to adopt some private sector innovations and technologies, along with updates in hiring practices that facilitate the recruitment and retention of our best and brightest.
How do we make this happen? First, legislatures need to fund the modernization of state agencies and infrastructure, and where possible, require cross-agency collaboration and resource sharing so that we can leverage the investments and activities from one agency to serve a whole government approach. Second, the private sector needs to review and reconsider its own practices so they can be partners in good faith to public agencies. Proprietary products make it extraordinarily difficult for public agencies to maintain or upgrade current systems, particularly after the providing company goes out of business. And finally, none of these changes happen without taxpayer demand.
As taxpayers, we should push our legislators and public agency leadership to adopt modern practices and technologies developed by private industry. As consumers, we should be pushing private industry to become partners in good faith with public agencies. When the next disaster hits, we want our communities to be more resilient and to recover quickly. To do so, we need modern infrastructure powered by diverse energy sources, modern technology systems that ease access to government services, and effective partnerships between government, private industries and communities. Every day, week or month that we spend lingering in the recovery period brings with it significant and long-term impacts to the financial health and physical, mental and emotional well-being of individuals and communities.
This is our moment. To meet this moment, we need modernized systems to connect our citizens easily and effectively with public services, we need public-private partnerships to incentivize and leverage innovation — and we need to evolve our own thinking about the roles of each.
Ashley Ward is a senior policy associate at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability.