Efficiency vs. Effectiveness

By Jim Mullen
Emergency Management, Once Removed

Director Linda Crerar of the Homeland Security Emergency Management (HSEM) program has been after me to discuss what policy issues should be part of the Bachelor’s in Arts and Sciences (BAS) degree that will soon be offered. I’ve resisted to date, but in this offering I have decided to take the plunge and suggest one area where some attention should be focused.

In my early years in Seattle, as the Director of Emergency Management, the Mayor, Norm Rice delivered an address (if memory serves, to the National Press Club) that resonated with me for my entire career: as a side note, when I ventured the comment that I thought his comments were inspired, he just laughed dismissively). Still, his words were right on target, whatever his true feelings may have been.

Rice defined in that speech the distinction between the private sector and the role of government: the private sector’s goal was to make a profit for its investors, and the common good, while not an afterthought, was relegated to a lower category of importance. Efficiency in terms of cost and benefit was primary. The public sector’s responsibility is different, he noted: our (public sector) bottom line was not efficiency or profit but effectiveness. Did our trains and buses run on time, and are our roads moving traffic so that people get where they intend to go with a minimum of disruption and inconvenience? “Profit” in our public transportation systems has a different bottom line: we may not need to make money in our public transportations systems if it is effective in getting people where they need to be in a timely fashion so their productivity is enhanced.

So, government and the private sector do have a different “bottom” line. One seeks efficiency above all, to maximize profits; the other seeks to be effective for the widest possible group of citizens, to maximize their pursuit of their individual goals.

Of course, “wasted resources” in either the public or private sector is unacceptable. And too often managers in the public sector self- style themselves as “bottom line” management types, just like the image they hold of their private sector counterparts. A common remark when confronted with a proposal that was out of the box would be “what’s the business case for this” when the proper question is “what is the cost if we do not do this”? When in 2000 as Seattle OEM Director I was recruiting private sector participation in the Project Impact initiative that sought to bring public and private interests together to address known natural hazards (like earthquake in Central Puget Sound) and develop mitigation efforts, I unwittingly drew loud laughter from some banking and insurance industry executives when I observed that our city bureaucracy, unlike the private sector, was often cumbersome and responded slowly to creative ideas. One executive responded as the chuckles were subsiding that they had been looking forward to escaping a similar problem within their internal bureaucracies by working with the more streamlined government entity that I represented.

Where the Project Impact initiative and similar public/private outreach efforts had the desired impact was in the recognition of not only common obstacles but also common objectives. Government needs the society to maintain its ability to function post – disaster for the common good: the private sector needs to keep its services functioning so it can effectively achieve its bottom line. Neither an effective society nor a productive and profitable private sector exceeds the other in importance.

So, here is the message: it is important as we educate students entering our field, and as we enhance the knowledge of those already in field, that we need to be wary of forgetting the differences as well as the commonalities between the public and private sector. Each sector requires for its success in fulfilling its mission, that the other be successful in fulfilling its mission.

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