Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

Government as Administrator vs. Government as Purchaser: Do Rules or Markets Create Greater Accountability in Serving the Poor?

Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

Government as Administrator vs. Government as Purchaser: Do Rules or Markets Create Greater Accountability in Serving the Poor?

Article excerpt


We are immersed in a sea of accountability. The bed we crawl out of each morning (unless it was manufactured decades ago) meets the safety standards set by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. We brush our teeth with water that meets U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA") standards; and as the wastewater flows down to the treatment plant, it must meet conveyance and treatment requirements of both the EPA and the state's department of natural resources. Want eggs and a piece of toasted rye bread for breakfast? The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates the practices of the farmer whose chickens laid the eggs and monitors the pesticides used on the wheat that the miller turned into the flour that the baker transformed into bread. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, meanwhile, oversees the safety of the final food products. Teeth brushed and well fed, we find our way to the garage, climb into the family car, and head for work. City police officers--public employees trained to follow the protocols of their chief and comply with the rules of the police commission--keep an eye on us to make sure we do not exceed the speed limits or fail to signal when changing lanes. If we are typical of the American workforce, we likely will ride on a local street paid for by a municipal government but built by private contractors according to the terms of lengthy purchasing processes. (1)

It is not even 9:00 a.m., and already we have swum through a sea of accountability: federal, state, and local accountability; regulatory accountability, administrative accountability, and procurement accountability. As the day proceeds, many of our daily activities bring into play one type of accountability or another. Switch on the computer? A state public utility commission regulates the price of the electricity we consume. Cross the street for a bite of lunch? The city traffic light, maintained by the municipal department of public works, ensures that the cars on Main Street do not run us over as we walk from curb to curb. Get stuck behind a school bus on the way home? The public school district has the bus company under contract to take kids home from afterschool basketball practice. Different levels and types of governmental accountability dog us every step of the way.

The thought of which model of accountability works best has never entered our minds. Most of us simply assume that, whichever level of government exercises whatever type of accountability, it is the appropriate level of government and the proper type of accountability. In the academic world, however, and even more in the day-to-day world of public administration, the question of what type of accountability works best for different forms of governmental activity is a hot topic. (2)

Much of the debate centers around so-called privatization. If government takes a classic government function (like sanitation, library operation, administration of welfare benefits, and most controversial of all, public education) and shifts responsibility for "delivering" the function from public employees to private firms under contract, is it possible to preserve accountability?


The debate over privatization masks the fact that, whether government provides services with its own employees or buys the same services from private vendors, government remains in charge. In the case of delivery of services to the poor, be they service job placement or health care or education, the decisions about whether a particular service will be delivered in the first place, when the service will start (and end), to whom the service will be delivered, how much of the service will be delivered, and what type of service will be delivered are all made by government officials, whether the service is delivered by government employees or private companies.

The threshold decision is whether government should provide a service at all. …

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