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Thoughts about Efficiency (Part II)

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By John Pearson
June 10, 2016

This is a continuation of last month’s column, in which I argued that efficiency should be the primary value in public administration, as Woodrow Wilson indicated more than 100 years ago. I am referring primarily to the implementation side of government, not the political or policymaking side. However, efficiency is somewhat important on the policymaking side as well. This paper from the Congressional Research Service documents when cost-benefit or other analysis is required in the federal rulemaking process.

Efficiency is crucial to just about any human endeavor. Recently, a service technician discussed the efficiency of my heat pump with me.

On the “Naked and Afraid” TV show, contestants go to a difficult environment and must obtain sufficient calories, fluids and shelter for a 21-day period. If they fail, they are removed from the contest. It takes a lot of survival skills to succeed at this game. Most of us would fail because we lack the skills to efficiently produce the required outputs.

An algebra student must solve a minimum number of problems per study session or he or she will fail. It won’t do for a minister to spend 30 hours on the weekly sermon. He or she has other responsibilities.

A teacher must produce satisfactory lessons, grade papers, etc., in a reasonable time period or s/he will fail.

Employees in all organizations must produce sufficient outputs (meeting quality standards) or they won’t maintain their jobs. Work groups in most organizations are under great pressure to produce sufficient outputs and increase their outputs. The same is true for organizations as a whole, whether private or public. There is nearly always pressure to reduce costs, increase outputs, or both – i.e., to increase efficiency.

Efficiency versus Effectiveness

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It’s very common for politicians, policymakers and persons who testify before Congress to speak of promoting “efficiency and effectiveness” of government programs as though these are separate things. However, effectiveness is really just a measure of how satisfied we are with agency outputs. We aren’t likely to pursue efficiency and effectiveness separately. 

Think of baseball teams. The management of a baseball team is going to hire the best players they can afford within their budget and the best trainers and support staff. They are going to make the best possible use of statistics and baseball strategy. These managers aren’t going to say “Let’s work on effectiveness,” or, “Let’s work on efficiency.” It’s all the same thing. They are trying to achieve the best output (the most wins) with available resources.

It’s not different in government. Each agency has a fixed budget at a given point in time, like a baseball team. If planes start crashing every month for mechanical reasons, would we ask the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to start working on effectiveness rather than efficiency? We want the problem solved (no more crashes), which requires an increase in efficiency.

And just being effective on major objectives is not enough. The public wants good results at the lowest possible cost. The Transportation Security Agency (TSA) has been effective in preventing airline bombings and hijackings, but there have been long lines and security lapses. Some have proposed privatization of TSA screeners because of the belief that private screeners would be much cheaper and would achieve higher quality (i.e., they would be more efficient).

Efficiency versus Economy 

Sometimes budget constraints require government officials to economize. Travel is cut, training is cut, maintenance is reduced, internal documentation is cut and customer service is cut. Whole programs may be cut. These are all examples of cost cutting or economizing, not efficiency gains.

People often confuse changes in the composition of output with efficiency. If you produce more widgets by skimping on the employee safety program, that is not an efficiency improvement. That’s a change in the composition of output. The safety program is an output.

I would argue that economy, like effectiveness, is highly related to efficiency. If you are required to cut spending, i.e., economize, then it’s important that you be as efficient as possible with the remaining resources assigned to you. Efficiency is still the overriding concern.

Final Thoughts

By downplaying efficiency as a value in public administration, we are obscuring the fundamental reality that public administrators, like private administrators, have scarce resources and can only produce so much at a given point in time. Production issues are just as important in public administration as in private administration. Greater production in government requires either increased efficiency or more money from the legislature.

Politicians naturally hope government agencies will improve their efficiency and not need additional resources. As I explored in a previous column, government agencies can be overwhelmed by legislative requirements and experience performance problems. If government agencies could somehow magically improve their efficiency enough, these performance shortfalls would disappear.

Politicians need to make realistic demands on public agencies. It isn’t easy to increase efficiency. And it’s not helpful if politicians try to do more by excessive spending. We have seen examples—Detroit, Puerto Rico—where legislatures overspend and put their jurisdictions in financial trouble.


Author: John Pearson recently retired from a lengthy career in the federal government where he was a program analyst. He has an MPA and a bachelor’s degree in economics. He now writes columns reflecting on his experience in government. His email is [email protected].

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3 Responses to Thoughts about Efficiency (Part II)

  1. Pingback: Actualités en AP : 17/06/2016 | Portail de connaissance IISA de l'administration publique

  2. Pingback: PA News: 17/06/2016 | IIAS Knowledge Portal on Public Administration

  3. Richard C. Wilson, Jr. Reply

    June 13, 2016 at 5:20 pm

    To the extent that “efficiency” means “outcomes,” which it by and large does for the author, this article is right on target.

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