Accountability Works

MY AUGUST COLUMN, “Essential Services,” supported the idea that garbage and recycling should have to compete with other government services for taxpayer dollars. Solid waste services should not be insulated from financial or political accountability or get a financial pass when police, fire protection and other public services are struggling for taxpayer money.

In response, one of my readers wrote, “In general, I am in agreement with you that compromise and politics are inherent in our system of government. You correctly identified that police, fire, education and libraries are essential services if our way of life is to continue to grow and prosper. If you consider how those services are dispensed and then how they typically are paid for, you then can see a fundamental difference when compared to solid waste services. The question I like to ask people is, ‘when was the last time that police or fire departments were asked to improve service and reduce costs at the same time?’”

He raises a good question. And the answer is self-evident. In a well-managed city or county, no department is free from pressures to control costs and improve services. New York City provides a good example of this. Faced with budgetary pressure to lower costs, the police department has been closely tracked in regard to performance measures. In the '90s New York City pioneered the Compstat system to measure response to crimes at the police precinct level. Compstat is widely credited for playing a major role in crime reduction in the past decade.

Now the city is using the mayor's 311 complaint line to improve city services. The August issue of Governing magazine details how Mayor Michael Bloomberg uses the 311 line to track police departmental performance on quality-of-life issues such as noise complaints. And this is against a backdrop of ongoing pressure to find ways to reduce costs.

As New York City has shown, police and fire departments can be managed to become more efficient, more responsive and better service providers. The public doesn't benefit when services are treated as sacred cows. Police and fire departments should not be exempt from accountability. And neither should garbage or recycling.

Politics may be messy. Oh heck, as a lobbyist, I know that politics are messy. That's why I don't eat sausage. But the public services that operate in full public disclosure, under political pressure to operate efficiently and to preserve taxpayer dollars, will always be more efficient than the unelected solid waste authorities that I wrote about in the August column. The latter are insulated from politics and imbued with the technocratic idea that they know more about garbage than the public. As the study I wrote about in August showed, one of the results is that they are less successful at siting facilities because they have a deaf ear for political realities.

The political process creates accountability. No public service should be insulated from the give and take of democracy.

On a side note, my September column prompted a number of letters asking about my mom's health. She remains in good health and is looking forward to her 90th birthday. Thanks for your concern.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at:

The columnist is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.