Iowa City: Public Good & Democratic Government (pt 2)

This is a continuation of a previous post which can be found here. Read that post first in order to understand the background to this post. I’m writing this post with the assumption someone already knows what I’m talking about.

* * *

I first noticed outsourcing in Iowa City government when I began working a seasonal job for Parks & Recreation, the job I had immediately prior to being hired by the Parking Department. I worked in the Central Business District (CBD) at that time. Our job was to clean the downtown area, mow some grass, and occasionally do a bit of gardening. Their were garbage cans that needed to be changed regularly and it was part of the work that was the responsibility of Parks & Rec, but it had been contracted out. I’m not sure the reasoning for it being outsourced. All the work I did in Parks & Rec could have been outsourced. There was no obvious logic for why some jobs are outsourced and others not.

The same goes for Parking. They are trying to outsource some of the janitorial work, although the City Council supposedly denied the request earlier and Parking management is planning to make a second request. I know neither the ultimate reasons of management in making the request or the reasons of the City Council in their initially denying the request. I also don’t know why management is making a second request. I did go to a meeting where management explained their basic reasons, but I still don’t know what is motivating their choices. I see no rhyme or reason it beyond saving money. However, why not outsource all of parking? Instead of just taking part of the work away from city maintenance workers, why not just outsource all of their work and eliminate their positions entirely? These are questions I have no answers for.

A maintenance worker told me that management wasn’t entirely sure how to keep the maintenance workers busy if and when the outsourced workers take over the janitorial part of their work. This maintenance worker was wondering why they had outsourced the work of maintenance workers when it was that work that partly justified the very existence of maintenance. They still have other work to do. There is always equipment to be fixed, painting to be done, and other maintenance type work. However, in the past, maintenance workers in Parking did more janitorial than they ever did maintenance. So, it makes one wonder about the future of maintenance positions. Once a part of the job has been outsourced, it logically follows all parts of the job can and should be outsourced if saving money is the priority.

The City government combined the Parking Department with the Transit Department, and so the work and some of the positions of the two is now combined. The building where the buses are housed and where the offices are located was partly funded by federal money. From what a bus driver explained to me, they can’t outsource the work done in a federally funded building. Management has dealt with this challenge by having Parking maintenance workers take over some of the janitorial work in that Transit building. So, some of the work is being shifted around while some positions are being entirely eliminated in Transit.

This outsourcing seems like a possible trend. Even before recent problems in the national economy, Parking management had already contracted out some of the work: window cleaning, ramp washing, etc. As far as I can tell, outsourcing has increased over time, at least in the departments I’m familiar with. However, not all work is being outsourced which is what I find curious.

Some office work, for various reasons, has increased in the Parking Department. So, even as they’ve been eliminating the lower jobs, they’ve been increasing the office jobs which includes an increase in management positions since I began working. Why do they need more managers if they are outsourcing more? They could outsource much of the management as well and just have a head of the department to oversee it. They could even eliminate both Parking and Transit as an independent department and put it under the management of some other department. Or they could contract the entire ramps to be run by a private company while the city would maintain ownership and certain control of standards and pricing. Certainly, they could at least outsource most of the office work, especially that which deals with secretarial work. And they could have the entire fiscal side of parking taken over by the department that deals with the city’s other areas of fiscal management.

Parking management, by going down this path of increasing outsourcing, might be making it inevitable that their own jobs will eventually become obsolete, assuming the reasons they have given are followed to their logical conclusion. Ignoring logical conclusions, let us just consider it from a moral angle. Why do managers who eliminate other people’s jobs feel so safe that their own jobs won’t be outsourced? This relates to a similar conundrum: Who watches the watchers? I remember when management put in cameras to watch cashiers, but they conveniently didn’t put cameras in their own offices. Managers handle money as well and have many more opportunities for illegal activities than cashiers do. It’s similar to congressmen having publicly funded health care while refusing to cooperate with health care reform that would create single payer or public option. Obviously, there is a moral hypocrisy involved in this. I don’t think it’s intentional. It’s just people acting like people, and it is simply difficult for people to take as seriously what effect others as they take what effects themselves. It’s not a matter of management or politicians being bad people, but only a fair system can ensure fair results. If the system isn’t democratically operated with public transparency and public responsibility, then unfair results are inevitable no matter how good the people or how good the intentions.

The point I’m trying to make isn’t about the moral intent or moral self-awareness of management. They are just normal people doing their best in a challenging situation where a lot is expected of them in terms of finding solutions. Everyone’s motives and biases can be questioned. My intentions can be questioned for I’m certainly not a neutral observer, both as a city employee and as a union member along with being a longtime resident of this city who feels a part of the community. The intentions of the union can be questioned since union members are specifically being targeted. The intentions of private businesses seeking government contract work can be questioned, especially if there were any personal or professional ties to government officials (crony capitalism) and maybe even more especially if there was any lobbying that happened about this issue (a slippery slope toward possible corporatism). Anyway, everyone’s intentions are potentially suspect because these are decisions that affect everyone in this community, even random citizens who are completely unaware of what is going on. Everyone has skin in the game for the future of Iowa City is at stake.

It’s precisely because everyone has skin in the game that I hold the position I’m advocating here. Government decision-making, especially at the local level should be as public, as transparent, and as democratic as possible. What I’m advocating, however, isn’t how the decision-making has been done so far. In particular, issues involving local government increasing outsourcing and/or privatization of public services are obviously publicly important and should therefore be publicly discussed. I only learned of management’s decisions long after they were made, although I should be fair in pointing out that management has made some efforts in being transparent such as eventually telling about what they are trying to do. Still, it is obvious that transparency hasn’t been the priority of Parking management (along with city manager and city council). That is the main issue that the recent article pointed out:

“In an email to the City Council, Steven Miller, president of A[F]SCME Local 183, took city administrators to task for notifying workers of the layoffs a week before the holidays and days after the union and city had reached a tentative five-year contract deal that included union concessions.”

This kind of dealings creates mistrust. The union made concessions in good faith. Having learned of this afterwards, it is impossible for the union to not feel deceived and betrayed. The management knew about this when asking for concessions from the union. It is conveniently self-serving that management decided to withhold this information until after the conclusion of a five-year contract discussion. That is not democracy. In fact, that is anti-democratic or at least undermining of democracy which amounts to the same difference.

This isn’t about pitting employees against management or unions against union bashers. That is part of the problem. We are all part of the same community. What harms any of us harms all of us. And what helps any of us helps all of us. I doubt management was intending to attack or undermine democracy, but intentions aren’t the point. Rather, the point is about results, intended or unintended.

If democracy is harmed, then it should be seen as undesirable by all involved, including management. To be democratically fair, management should go back to the discussion table with the union. They essentially lied to the union in order to manipulate them or that is how it appears from the outside. In essence, that seems like union bashing in that it has the seemingly intentional result of targeting the union in an unfair way (without such an intention, such actions make no sense). I realize management wouldn’t think of it that way. That is what I keep coming back to. It doesn’t matter how any of us perceive ourselves or how we rationalize our own actions. The main thing that matters in a democratic society is democracy itself. Everything else should follow from democracy and everything should reinforce rather than weaken democracy. That is what we should aspire toward in all of our dealings, even when it isn’t to our personal advantage. If we give up on democracy for short term personal gain (or even just for bureaucratic efficiency and cost-savings), then we don’t deserve democracy. When the government acts contrary to democracy, the consent of the ruled becomes invalidated.

From my perspective, this keeps coming back to clarifying the purpose and meaning of democracy. Our government, in theory, is based on the consent of the ruled, i.e., “We the People” (note how “People” is capitalized and directly referred to with the plural “We”). According to the Constitution, what exactly is it that We the People do? We the People establish the government, not the other way around. As later clarified throughout the 19th century, this is a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” (the wording of which was probably based on the similar wording of previous Americans, specifically the abolitionist Theodore Parker and the Senator Daniel Webster; but the idea behind the wording probably was most compellingly expressed by Thomas Paine). Despite the imperfections and failings of Democracy and the American Dream, it is this ideal of self-government that has continued to inspire generation after generation of Americans.

It’s easy to forget this in the messy details of running a government bureaucracy. That is understandable. People are just trying to do their jobs. Democracy and bureaucracy don’t always mesh well together, not without a lot of self-sacrificing effort and seeking of consensus. Democracy is not easy. If you want easy, then try dictatorship or monarchy, try theocracy or fascism. But democracy is purposely designed to be difficult, at least in the short term. It is the long term that democracy most clearly proves its worth. Because of this, many people feel uncertain about democracy. Do we really want to put all that effort into protecting our freedom and rights? Why not just be lazy by going for for the quick and easy answers? The democratic process of transparency and consensus is messy, tiresome and often irritating.

It’s something Americans have struggled with from the beginning. Even early colonists, founding fathers and otherwise, were of mixed opinion about democracy. Many wanted democracy, especially the majority of Americans who were being oppressed and disenfranchised (non-whites, non-protestants, indentured servants, slaves, women, those without property, etc). If it was up to the majority, we would now have a democracy where all were treated equally. But among the elite, opinions were more conflicting. Some of those with influence (Paine, Franklin, Jefferson, etc) were more egalitarian in their vision of a democratic society while others opposed democracy because they correctly understood that democracy undermined their elite status and power over everyone else. It was class war right from the beginning. The Revolutionary War wouldn’t have been a success if the majority hadn’t fought for democracy, but the moment independence was won the democratic majority was legally and militarily put back in their place.

This class war continues to this day in every decision made by every government, local and national. Recently, this has been seen with the Occupy movement. The legal question has been raised about who owns public lands, i.e., “The Commons”. In a democracy, “We the People” own “The Commons”. So, to ask who owns “The Commons” is to ask whether this is or isn’t a democracy. If the government owns “The Commons”, then such public property is no longer “The Commons”. Either the government is “of the people, by the people, for the people” or it isn’t. Either the people own and control the government or otherwise the opposite becomes inevitable. The consent of the ruled necessitates that there is actual consent. If decisions are made undemocratically by Parking management or anyone else, then there is no opportunity for consent of the ruled. It simply is rule that seeks to force consent or else to disenfranchise anyone who doesn’t consent.

I’m trying to be very clear that this isn’t just some small, insignificant issue of local politics. It’s symbolic of everything going on in the country right now. And it is symbolic of the conflicts that have existed for longer than this country has existed. In every decision our government makes, in every government decision “We the People” do or don’t accept, the future of our communities and our society is being formed. This isn’t ultimately about outsourcing. It is about a collective vision of who we aspire to be. We become what we do. We become what we allow to be done to us, what we allow to be done in our name.

3 thoughts on “Iowa City: Public Good & Democratic Government (pt 2)

  1. “Democracy and bureaucracy don’t always mesh well together, not without a lot of self-sacrificing effort and seeking of consensus. ”

    This is the only line I take exception to here. I don’t see self-sacrificing effort and consensus as possible with an enmeshed bureaucracy, having worked for several in my life. But that’s my only bone with this post.

    • There is good reason to take exception to that line. I take exception to it myself to some degree. Enmeshed bureaucracy is a doozy, but I don’t know how it can be avoided. Has there ever been a political system that has been sustainably maintained over generations or even centuries without an enmeshed bureaucracy forming?

      My line of thinking was more how enmeshed bureaucracy can be limited while democracy is increased. I don’t see how enmeshed bureaucracy (is there any other kind of bureaucracy?) can be entirely eliminated, but maybe I lack imagination and lack faith in democracy. From my perspective, the best I would hope for (especially in the practical terms of the near future) is to increase democracy so that its influence is greater than bureaucracy. The idea behind this is that, if democracy is strong enough, it will severely limit or even suppress the worst aspects of bureaucracy.

      I don’t think that is expecting too much. If anything, it is expecting too little. But even as little as it is, it would be a major breakthrough for the majority of Americans to come to this understanding.

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