Market control of public services


Remarks by James Q. Wilson, Professor of Government, Harvard University, at the UCLA Symposium "LOS ANGELES: METROPOLIS OF THE FUTURE?" March 31-April 2, 1970.

The issue Professor Ries raises that has the greatest current policy implications is that of control. Los Angeles is not unique, but it is in some degree different in two respects: first, there are less institutionally regularized forms of control in city government over underlying agencies than there is in some other cities. And, secondly, in the county the Lakewood plan provides the contract services program, an arrangement that has implications for control not found in any but a few other places. Nassau County, New York, has a plan by which local communities and villages can buy various levels of police services from the county government, but, by and large, it is unique to the Los Angeles area.

The issue of control has to be understood in the context of the alternatives available to a city interested in increasing the extent to which citizens can affect the quality and distribution of public services that they consume. There are three methods of control: one is the immediate supervision of appointed public officials by an attentive public that sets standards and creates an atmosphere or ethos in which there are shared understandings as to the direction of public policy but leaves the day-to-day administration of policy in the hands of qualified professionals. This is the kind of political control that exists in many, if not most, upper middle class suburbs around the country. There is a high level of citizen interest in politics, there is a good deal of time spent in articulating what it is we want in our schools or want our police to be like, but there is not a high level of day-to-day intervention in the operation of those organizations. Being upper middle class, we defer to the judgement of other upper-middle-class persons, namely experts.

The second method of control is the day-to-day intervention in the workings of organizations. The political machine of the style found in Chicago, Albany, Pittsburgh, or Gary at various points in time is an extreme manifestation of this, but you can find it in many communities that have no political machine at all. Generally, it is a form of political control that you find in working class or industrial suburbs and in many, though not all, central cities. There is a preoccupation with individual contact, the reconciliation of individual needs, and the adjustment of particular services to the problems of particular persons. This process obviously has a great potential for inequities, favoritism, perhaps corruption, but it also produces an opportunity for immediate contact that does not depend on the articulation of public policy. In fact, this form of intervention is almost policy-free in any general sense.

The third form of control is to give people a choice among competing sources of services, just as people at the supermarket have a choice among the beans, bread, and soaps. The consumer controls the soap makers not because he is on the board of directors, or he owns stock, or he passes regulatory legislation, or he intervenes in the day-to-day workings of the Proctor and Gamble Company, but by preferring one person's product over another's.


What is striking about Los Angeles as a city is that to a considerable degree it doesn't have any of these three forms of control. There is no policy-making apparatus that regularly sets norms for public operations in a systematic way. There is relatively little day-to-day intervention and meddling in the bureaucracy—there is some, of course, and there is more than the bureaucrats would like but, by the standards of most cities, it is rather small and only rarely tinged with favoritism or corruption. There is, finally, relatively little choice, except in the county where the Lakewood Plan offers a community a choice between its own public services and that which the County provides.

In thinking about the problem of improving control, we have to think which one of these three strategies or which combination of them might work either in the suburbs (and there are different kinds of suburbs—industrial, upper middle class residential, etc.), or in the inner city neighborhoods, assuming boundaries could be put around these neighborhoods and some devolution of authority given to them. I think for certain communities the first model of control will work. The community can manage its own services—it has a responsive but responsible electorate. I think that for other kinds of communities, there'll be a control pattern developed based on the intervention strategy which, though it will please those who have skill and access, will probably not please those who do not have skill and access. But perhaps the choice model ought to be followed more fully.


I am not sure whether one could institutionalize the Lakewood Plan within the city boundaries, assuming we waived the legal and constitutional questions and simply looked at it as a political and economic reality. But I am curious as to whether we could carry the Lakewood model even further. For example, why should a town, take Lakewood itself, be put into a position in which it could only purchase these services from one supplier? Why do they have to deal with a monopoly market?

Why can't they purchase it from a variety of suppliers: indeed, why do they have to purchase the public services from governments at all? Why couldn't they as well purchase most, if not all, of these services from private suppliers? You look at the list of services provided, and there is practically none that could not be provided by a private supplier, in competition with other private suppliers. Map making, ambulance services, police services, industrial waste control, animal regulations, street widening, building inspection, city health ordinance inspection, engineering, library services, and the like. The contracts could be written in such a way that, though we must observe certain state imposed or county imposed minimum standards so that nobody could consume less service than was good for everyone, they could still have a choice. If they didn't like service provided by one person, then they could consume it from another.

This kind of experimentation, which perhaps is only possible in an idealized world, might give us some better understanding of the possibilities of social and human control over services by this third strategy utilizing more fully than has been done before, the choice model. There may be some services that would have to be exempt from it but I think they are relatively few. If this is the case, then we would learn a lot more than we know now that might be relevant to the problems of the inner city.


In dealing with the problems of the inner city, we just don't have much reliable understanding as to the feasibility of different control mechanisms. In an inner city ghetto the strategy of control that has been developed in the conventional upper middle class suburb may not work at all and it certainly will not work as we know it now. To assume that one could "suburbanize" the central city is to assume that there are no important differences of class, ethnicity, personal needs, and life cycle that affect political judgements; and that assumption is absurd. Similarly, to assume that models of control that rest on the opportunities for personal intervention in government are necessarily desirable may or may not be true. I have not been among those who are most aghast at individual intervention in bureaucracies; I've even on occasion had a few nice things to say about political machines, so I approach this not from a moralistic point of view but from the question of effectiveness. I suspect that the individual intervention model of control applied to the central city would leave most people in any particular inner city neighborhood at least as dissatisfied as they were before, because the intervention model can only work if a few people intervene. If everyone intervened, then chaos results. But there are so many needs to be met that they have to be met on a policy basis.


This leads me therefore back to this third possibility. I don't think we ought to experiment with people who live in inner city areas, simply because their needs are, or seem to be, greater than the needs of other groups. We ought to try to experiment where the costs of failure are relatively low and the opportunities for reversing the experiment rather easy, which means that we ought to experiment in such places as Los Angeles County, with contract service programs and the like. I would favor extending the existing experiment.

I'm not sure how many people in the contract communities are satisfied with the quality of service. They probably are satisfied with the cost, as it seems to be a lot less (particularly because of the subsidy factors, partially because of economies of scale) than comparable services in non-contracting communities. But are they satisfied with the quality? And if they aren't, is there anything they can do about it?

If they are not satisfied, one way that one could do something about it is to switch from one supplier to another, at the expiration of a given contract. If this works, then it has some implications for the central city. It might also have some implications with respect to, for example, education voucher plan for paying the costs to parents of public or private school education, thereby ending the government's monopoly of education (a monopoly which, in my view, is unjustified).

Therefore, what I have to suggest to you is not that there are lessons in other parts of the country that are relevant to evaluating the control issue in Los Angeles, but, on the contrary, Los Angeles has lessons to offer to the rest of the country. Here, at least in the county, Los Angeles is a leader, but the lessons are incomplete and imperfect because they have not been pursued so fully or so imaginatively as they should be. And I think one ought to be quite cautious about making inferences from county plans to the possibilities for inner city changes.

James Q. Wilson is the author of a number of books on urban problems and public policy. He is Professor of Government at Harvard University. This article is based on remarks by Prof. Wilson at the UCLA symposium "Los Angeles: Metropolis of the Future?" 31 March—2 April 1970. The text was subsequently included in LOS ANGELES: VIABILITY AND PROSPECTS FOR METROPOLITAN LEADERSHIP (Werner Z. Hirsch [ed.], Praeger Publishers, 1971), and is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher.