The Private Sector Approach to the Public Sector

This short series from Next American City looks at the emerging trend of entrepreneurs applying their own private-sector business savvy to the world of local government.

One program focuses on luring new young talent into city positions -- the majority of which are staffed by soon-to-retire baby boomers.

"The Teach for America-style program pairs employment in high-level offices with training to enhance fellows' skills and understanding of the social context of their host cities, which include San Francisco, Houston and Baton Rouge, La.

The program recognizes that young people tend to view city government as overly bureaucratic, scandal-ridden and ineffective. When recruiting applicants, Henderson challenges young people to improve their understanding of how city government works. "How many of you in the room have gone home and told your parents, ‘My mission in life is to work for the city's sewer department'?" she asks. Seeing little to no response, Henderson reveals that this seemingly unglamorous department actually oversees many of the environmental issues that young people care strongly about. "

Full Story: Entrepreneurs Reboot City Government



Beyond Marketplace Fragmentation

There are more than 87,500 distinct municipal governments in the United States. Each one has a zoning ordinances that is complex, inherently self-conflicting, and overly redundant. Regardless, each and every ordinance has the force of law. As an attorney I have to emphasize to clients that compliance is not "optional".

With modern search engine capabilities, and business process rules engines, regulations can be read electronically with certainty and extreme efficiency. Yet, marketplace fragmentation continues to make it impossible to display zoning on any Internet mapping system.

Marketplace fragmentation creates the regulatory barriers which prevent economic recovery in vital sectors of our economy: Construction, Finance, and Real Estate.

There is a simple solution.

Each time I present my solution for overcoming fragmentation, I am asked the same question: "Why aren't we already doing this?"

The answer to that question is more important than the actual solution itself. It is so simple. It was staring me in right in the face. Yet it took me years of lecturing on Business Law, laboring in regulatory compliance, and fighting in bitter litigation to grasp.


Complexity and uncertainty guarantee a perpetual right to act arbitrarily and capriciously. Under minimal scrutiny the courts only need to find some semblance of rationality. City Government does not have to overly bureaucratic, scandal-ridden and ineffective.

Fragmentation is the ultimate domestic “Regulatory Protectionism.” Nations create complex systems for imports to protect their economies. Municipalities are no different.

Because each ordinance is unique developers must hire local lawyers, local engineers, and contractors who are familiar with the unique local process.

Planning Firms and Architects perpetuate this. We are able to sell our services to a vast marketplace with over 87,000 potential customers.

Fragmentation creates full employment for planners. This is why we act as Peter Katz described. We process permits, hold meetings, and try as best we can to respond to the proposals of developers on the one hand and the protests of citizens on the other.

There is no 800 pound Gorilla in Real Estate Development. Instead the construction industry suffers a slow death by piranha. Thousands of little bites are taken as they navigate a labyrinth of Rube Goldberg twists and turns. There is hardly any flesh left by the time they actually get permission to build anything.

Bureaucracies hold power in the same fashion as ancient priesthoods. We make ourselves necessary for “salvation.” This is why every application must be denied upon first submission. We must utilize our power to say no in order to justify our existence.

Any “reformation” would mean that Planners, Lawyers, and Architects could once again focus on improving the human environment but it would come at too high a cost us.

Market inefficiencies are the feeding grounds of our profession.

It may never be possible to un-shackle Development. We will all simply defend the status quo and deny that we have any part in preventing economic recovery.

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