By: Peter Greene
We have always paid public servants a flat fee, untethered to any sort of "performance measures." That's because we want public service to be completely disconnected from any private interests.
Fighting Fire With Money
Imagine if, for instance, we paid fire fighters on sliding scale, based on how many of which type fires they put out at a certain speed. This would be disastrous for many reasons.
Fire fighters would refuse to work in cities where there were few fires to fight, because they couldn't make a living. In cities where there were commonly multiple fires and their livelihood on the line, fire fighters would be encouraged to look at each fire call through a lens of "What's in it for me?"
For instance, in a system where fire fighters were paid based on the value of the flame-besieged property, fire fighters might view some small building fires as Not Worth the Trouble. Why bother traveling to the other side of the tracks? It's only a hundred-dollar blaze, anyway. Let's wait till something breaks out up in the million-dollar neighborhood.
In the worst-case scenario, one of our fire fighters depending on performance-based pay to feed his family may be tempted to grab some matches and go fire up some business.
Occasionally we've seen these kinds of perverse incentives in action, and we don't much like it. The areas of the country where you take extra speed limit care at the end of the month because the local police have a quota to meet. The neighborhood where cops have to roust a certain number of suspects a week to keep their job ratings. Nobody thinks these are examples of excellence in public service.
In fact, we have tried private police forces and private fire companies in the past. We don't much care for how that works out, because it creates a system that provides excellent service -- but only for the customers who are paying for it.
The idea of public service is to create a class of people who are above self-interest and who do not respond to a single boss. We are outraged when abuse of police power happens precisely because we expect the police to act as if they work for everyone, and to put their dedication to that service above any single interests, including their own.
That's the definition of public service -- service roles that are stripped of any possibility of incentives other than the mandate to serve the public good. That's what we mean by "professional" -- a person who puts all personal self-interest aside and focuses on Getting the Job Done. Trying to motivate a public servant with self-interest inevitably tends to pollute the professional setting with the very self-interest that we're trying to get out of there.
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Board President Phil Kauffman (At Large) defended the legal costs in a commentary recently published by The Washington Post, arguing that hiring outside lawyers to examine members’ spending decisions was “the right thing to do” as the school board sought to examine its own actions and come up with new procedures.
“Objectivity was an important part of this process,” he wrote, saying that the board hired the Venable law firm for its experience handling public-integrity issues. The board asked Venable to review board expense records, provide a written report and recommend actions.
“This is standard operating procedure when an organization is reviewing its own practices, whether it’s a business, a sports league or a government agency,” Kauffman wrote.
But several Montgomery County Council members and a Montgomery watchdog group have challenged the need to involve outside lawyers and assailed the cost of the help.
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