The recent 5-3 vote by the Bloomington, IL City Council against privatizing solid waste services raises the question of why this privatization effort failed, while others succeed? As the Waste Dive article linked above describes, privatization is popular in general, but on a city-by-city basis it can be a difficult undertaking. In the case of Bloomington, the no vote appears to have been influenced by the union representing the city’s solid waste workers. What are some other common considerations for city councilors considering privatization?
As with any attempt to describe human decision-making, there are as many considerations as there are city councilors. However, the considerations can mostly be broken down into two general categories: ideology and self-interest.
Ideology is the political belief structure that city councilors bring to the issue of privatization. City councilors, like most politicians, tend to have a pretty highly developed ideology. Moreover, their ideologies tend to be more polarized than the general population. Many if not most city councilors will therefore approach privatization with a bias arising from their views generally about the appropriate size of government, the relative efficiency of government, and the trustworthiness of private businesses and/or large corporations.
When I was on city council, my bias was (and continues to be) in favor of privatization of government services, because I generally believe that private businesses can provide most services more efficiently than can government. One of my colleagues on the city council approached these issues from exactly the opposite frame of mind – he believed government employees were better suited to carry out services on behalf of taxpayers than were private businesses. Either one of us could be persuaded on the merits of a particular issue, but we were starting from much different places.
If you’re trying to get a read on which way a city councilor is going to go on privatization, then, it makes sense to understand how they approach these issues from an ideological standpoint.
Self-interest is pretty self-explanatory. City Councilors, despite their constant claims to be concerned only with the well-being of their city, are self-interested. One of the reasons why democracy works pretty well is that it generally aligns an office-holder’s self-interest with the best interest of their constituents. If a city councilor generally makes people’s lives better, they’ll be more likely to vote for him or her.
Where the self-interest thing gets interesting is when it comes to special interests. To put it simply, those people who are better organized and funded tend to get their way. In the case of Bloomington, the solid waste workers were well-organized. I don’t know about this specific case, but those unions typically donate to city council campaigns and otherwise can disproportionately impact political outcomes.
Other considerations that arise may be environmental considerations – does a city councilor believe that privatization will better serve the environment? Will privatization increase or decrease customers’ garbage bill? Like in Bloomington, would privatization help stop a drain on city funds, which would otherwise cause rate or tax hikes or cuts in other services?
You can see how each one of these considerations interplays with a city councilors ideology and his or her self-interest as an elected official. Each privatization debate will be shaped by those factors.
Jeff Eager is the Founder and CEO of Waste Alert, which provides weekly email updates on local government activity to solid waste and recycling companies. He is a practicing attorney specializing in solid waste franchise issues for private waste companies, and is the former mayor of Bend, Oregon.