Government Outsourcing vs DIY? Is the Grass Always Greener?

Editorial

77

When running your business, condo, household, town or county, there are always choices on how to get the necessary tasks done to keep that entity functioning at the level desired by the stakeholders. For purposes of this discussion, let’s the call the choices DIY (do it yourself) or outsourcing (hiring someone else to do the job).

We know a little about this. We outsource the printing of our newspaper to a professional printer, an easy decision for a small business, because the $500,000+ investment necessary for the printing equipment cannot be justified for our operation. That decision means we believe they can do it better than we can. On the other side, we pride ourselves in the DIY approach for our content. It makes us unique and provides readers content we know is not available anywhere else. If we were to outsource our content, we feel we would be losing our soul and our reason for existence. Yes, we use some syndicated material, which we pay for, but it’s limited to a column, some puzzles and cartoons. 95% of our content, we create just for our readers. But enough about us.

Regardless of the organization or entity, the rationale and thought process is pretty much the same. Which choice offers the best result at the lowest cost? This question ultimately defines the problem of making a decision, developing a strategy and then implementing that strategy.

Twenty years ago we made the decision to become our own Town to provide better self-control of our community. Why the rush to give up that self-determination now?

There are those who believe outsourcing our Town functions is the answer to complaints of “too many Town employees.” Recently Town Council discussed the costs associated with outsourcing Community Development, Parking, Code Enforcement & Water. We’ve heard the rumblings about how many employees there are at Town Hall, and especially how many vehicles.

Few seem to appreciate that bringing those operations in-house, or hiring employees of the Town to do those tasks was done after considerable research. Reports since bringing them in-house show that the move saved the Town money. Just go back to Council meetings and information provided by staff and the data is there.

Don’t ignore that data now, just because the buzzword “outsourcing” sounds good. It just might not be.

At one time outsourcing became very prevalent in organizations burdened by high labor contracts, pension and other benefit obligations. Frankly, those situations rarely exist today, and certainly not at our Town Hall. If Town Hall was overpaying, why have so many departing Town Hall staff professionals gone on to higher paying jobs?

The number of Town employees is a bit of a red herring. If the Town has, say, 10 employees in a department and decides to outsource that service. The contractor who will provide that service will need to hire 10 employees to do the work. Or, maybe less, because in order for them to make money on the contract they have to cut their costs somewhere. So, let’s say they hire 8 employees and now the Town is getting les service from fewer people while paying the same amount. The only positive? The Town can now say it has 10 less employees. How has that served Town residents?

If work is outsourced, accountability drops without question. Good management of your own employees will always provide higher productivity over outsourced contract service providers. The line of communication is shorter and much more clear.

Getting the real numbers to compare can be a challenge, no doubt. Other communities are not exactly like us. Bonita Springs outsources a lot of work and keeps a low per capita employee count. However, the expenses per resident appear to be really high, compared to what our Town has been experiencing. Thus, Bonita seems to be paying a premium for the services they outsource.   Data provided by Town Staff also support the decision of bringing Parking, Beach Enforcement and Beach Water in house to Town employee status. Other data presented recently compared the often-criticized Town Community Development Department with The Town of Estero and Bonita Springs. Again we seem to spending a lot less.

The service levels provided with outsourcing also need examination beyond the financials. Those old timers here can tell real horror stories on response times from Lee County when they managed all our services. Think getting things done in our Town Hall is sometimes slow, with unresponsive or just uncooperative service? Those are all easy criticisms to lay out when service/permit applicants don’t know the procedures and ignore staff comments to help correct problems with our requests! And, oh by way, how about we let the Town Manager do his job of managing the staff, so staff knows consistently who their boss really is? Interference by others creates dysfunction, and undermines authority and productivity. This job gets even tougher with outsourced contractors doing the job.

So what am I saying? A couple of things. First, service can get worse with outsourcing. Trust me on this. It’s possible, maybe probable. Secondly, study the numbers before pulling the trigger on any decision. Spend the money to get good information if necessary. Cost per service, response times, user or consumer satisfaction data all need to be reviewed.

Government Lite, meaning minimal Town employees with most services outsourced is not necessarily the best service model for Island residents in 2017. Residents have come to expect excellent customer service for their tax dollars and Government Lite may not be able to deliver. Before making a move to outsource Town services just so we can say we only have X number of employees, the quality of that service should be considered carefully. Outsourcing may be a shortsighted and very expensive move.

There is more than big dollars at stake, it’s our Town and we deserve the highest level of services our tax dollars can buy.

 

Bob & Missy Layfield