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How Malleable Is Public Support for Running Government Like a Business?

- December 15, 2007

Promises to “make government run more like a business” by streamlining procedures, eliminating delays, and reducing waste are frequent refrains in campaign rhetoric, and for good reason. Support for the free enterprise system and suspicion of “big government” are central values in the American political culture. To be sure, these sentiments are often honored more in the breach than in the observance, as when farmers — one of the most steadfastly conservative, anti-government segments of American society — rally in support of the government subsidies that sustain them economically.

Upon inspection many business enterprises turn out to be remarkably wasteful. However, to the extent that the stereotype is accurate, it presumably reflects, among other things, a difference in the missions of the private and public sectors. Businesses are supposed to maximize profit by efficiently converting inputs into valued outputs. Conducting the public’s business, however, often involves lengthy periods of deliberation and the balancing of various sets of interests against one another,culminating in makeshift compromises and accompanied by elaborate mechanisms intended to enhance public accountability — goals likely to undermine efficiency.

In an intriguing new study (abstract here) that examines “Citizens’ Beliefs that Government Should Run Like a Business,” Amy Gangl set out to determine how deeply ingrained these beliefs really are, and more specifically the extent to which they would prove to be malleable when the issue was presented in a frame highlighting non-efficiency-related considerations. In a survey of 400 adults, Gangl posed the following question to half of the respondents:

bq. Politics in the U.S. often involves debates about important public issues that are carried out in a slow and messy manner. Some people think these are positive characteristics of a democratic government like ours that seeks to represent everyone’s interests. To what extent do you agree?

In contrast to this “pluralistic” framing, Gangl provided a “business” frame for the other half of the sample:

bq. Politics in the U.S. often involves debates about important public issues that are carried out in a slow and messy manner. Some people think that our government should be run more like a successful business, making decisions in a more timely and efficient manner. To what extent do you agree?

The result? The “pluralistic” framing of the question increased respondents’ assessments of the fairness and timeliness of the lawmaking process by 14 and 18 percentage points, respectively. These results, Gangl concludes, “suggest that if political elites spent less time criticizing government and more time setting debates within the context of the institutional structure and demands of the lawmaking process, citizens might not be so critical of the political process.”