Sunday, August 10, 2008

if it ain't working, sell it off!

it turns out tully's column from the other day was prescient: mayor ballard now wants to privatize the mayor's action center, the hotline residents call to complain about potholes, stray dogs, and the like.

the MAC uses an old system that's "so outdated that online requests are printed out, taken to another computer and typed into a program that sends the request to the appropriate city department". but when the center had 15 operators, things still went fairly smoothly and call waits ranged from 90 seconds to 2 minutes. but now, there are only 10 operators, so (surprise!) things aren't going so well. rather than fill those empty positions—the article states that three positions have been intentionally left vacant—the mayor would rather privatize the whole shebang. this is perhaps the most telling sentence in the article:

[Sarah Taylor, director of constituent services,] said Ballard asked her to look at long-range options before throwing more resources at the problem.

in other words, fix this, but do it without spending any money. unfortunately, it doesn't work like that in the real world. you can't just take an understaffed department working with obsolete gear and magically make it work better without hiring more people or upgrading any equipment.

so the mayor turned to page one of the republican playbook, and there was his solution: privatize! you could say he's just following in the footsteps of governor mitch daniels, but if so, he hasn't been paying enough attention to learn from the governor's mistakes... like the privatization of FSSA.

here's the most obvious flaw with the concept of privatizing the MAC: how is a private operator supposed to make money on the deal? the logistics of the toll road deal are obvious: 75 years times ever-increasing tolls times many drivers equals billions of dollars of revenue for macquarie. but where is the money in listening to naptown residents complain about potholes?

i understand that privatization can reduce overhead costs. but the MAC currently only has 10 employees, working for the notoriously low pay of government employees. what private operator is really going to be able to deliver the same or better quality of service at such a low cost? the underpants gnome jokes write themselves.

in the article, jackie nytes ponders "how call center operators outside the City-County Building could be as familiar with government services as the people who live and work here". this is a good point, but i wonder if it goes far enough. obviously, wherever they are, the non-government operators won't be as familiar with government services. but where would this call center be? can we even be sure it would be in indianapolis? in indiana? if you pick up the phone next year to call the MAC, will someone in st louis or denver answer? MAC operators don't just need to be intimately familiar with city government, they need to be familiar with city geography as well. they need to know the difference between broad ripple and rocky ripple, between greenwood and ravenswood.

right-wingers like to talk about running government "like a business", seemingly failing to understand that government is not a business and therefore shouldn't be run like one. the primary responsibility of our city government is to us, the city's residents. in contrast, a private company's main responsibility is to the bottom line. government is there to serve people. business is there to generate profit. these motivations are fundamentally incompatible.

i'm starting to sound like a broken record here, but where is the "fluff" that ballard told us was in the budget? so far, his idea of cutting fluff has been eliminating arts funding, slashing parks funding, and privatizing the very means by which citizens communicate with city government. these are all things democrats predicted would happen if ballard got elected, and we were dismissed as being paranoid.

of course, there is no fluff in the budget and there never was. and now that ballard is in office, he surely understands this as well as anyone. but it's too late: he promised to cut $70 million from the budget, and in addition begged the legislature to enact a plan that he knew would significantly decrease city revenues.

it's going to be long four years.


Wilson46201 said...

ummm...maybe they could sell advertising spots to play to the citizens stuck in the lengthy telephone queue?

Anonymous said...

I've called MAC. The operators knew NOTHING of city government and didn't have an attitude that they even care. They are glorified message takers. They could use an answering service and get the same results.

Complaints should be taken via an web based message board so citizens can see where/what the complaints are in our city. Then the city should mark them "resolved" and check them off.

For people that cannot access the internet (which should be very few exceptions since we have libraries), there should be a few very polite and caring folks to take their calls.

The people I've talked with at MAC, were not particularly polite. And I don't recall I ever got any "action". ..but then I called when Peterson was mayor.