I frequently hear criticism that government is too slow and never gets anything done. We should be more nimble and responsive to change, like businesses, for example. I won’t repeat my arguments about why governments are not businesses, but I would like to analyze the myth that government is too slow.
The first question that comes to mind is, “too slow for what?” Are we too slow when responding to the daily emergencies that happen throughout our community? Satisfaction surveys typically tell us that the vast majority of people are highly satisfied with fire and police services. Emergency responders take great pride in getting to the scene quickly because they know that lives may be at stake. We measure how long it takes to respond and constantly look for ways to improve our performance. The most important resources to ensure a quick response are people, equipment, and facilities that, coincidentally, are not cheap. We spend about $30 million annually on police and fire services in order to make sure that we aren’t too slow.
Are our water and sewer services too slow? People complain about their cost, but I seldom recall anyone telling me they had to wait for water from their tap or let sewage build up in their toilets. We have rare service interruptions when a line breaks, but I have never been without water or sewer service due to a City-related problem during my adult life. Emergency and utility services comprise an overwhelming portion of our annual budget for the simple reason that citizens would not and should not accept slow or poor quality performance.
What about the City’s finances? When I started as a city manager about 30 years ago, we produced monthly financial reports that were available to the public in council packets if anyone wanted to stop by City Hall to see them. Now, any citizen can go online and see daily reports on their smartphone. What once took weeks is now done automatically every day. Many transactions, like paying a water bill, that used to require a fair amount of time can now be done with a few keystrokes. You can even renew library books and check out materials online.
I am occasionally frustrated by the time it sometimes takes to get a project underway or completed, but I don’t forget that the most important things we do happen every day. The new fire and police stations now under construction took much longer than I would have liked, and they will help our responders do an even better, quicker job. We did not, however, stop providing quality services while waiting for the new facilities any more than we interrupted water service when building the new treatment plant in 2005. It is appropriate that we take time to plan and explain projects that require large sums of money and will serve the community for many years. Often, the delays that frustrate are only signs that we are taking the time to do things right.