Hennepin County Medical Center - Local 977

Backing Privateers into a Corner

AFSCME’s striping crews in MnDOT dispel the myth that the private sector is more efficient than public employees.

AFSCME is part of a new ground-level campaign that’s turning the tables against those who try to outsource public services to for-profit corporations. The “Taxpayer Empowerment Agenda” provides specific ways to hold states, counties, cities, and school districts accountable if they even think about outsourcing services or selling off public infrastructure.

The goal is to make sure taxpayers – not corporations – control what taxes pay for. “We want to change the discussion,” says Donald Cohen, executive director of the group In the Public Interest. “We want to put them [privateers] on the defensive.”

Do it right, or don’t do it at all

The Taxpayer Empowerment campaign provides a playbook to put into action if a threat of outsourcing arises. “A lot of times, these things happen fast, and elected and community folks don’t know how to deal with it,” Cohen says.

To help, the campaign includes 10 questions opponents should ask immediately if a public agency or community considers outsourcing. “If you ask the right questions, a lot of times, they don’t have answers,” Cohen says. “That slows them down. Or it can stop them.”

The agenda sets up standards that governments should follow in discussing outsourcing, and forces privateers to back up their rhetoric about the performance and savings they promise.

The Taxpayer Empowerment Agenda is built around basic principles of transparency, accountability, oversight, and public control of public services. “These are things that people think already happen, but they don’t,” Cohen says. “We want to start saying: Do it right. The reality is, if you do it right, you usually don’t do it.”

Where things go wrong

In December 2013, In the Public Interest released a nationwide report giving details of nearly two dozen outsourcing schemes that cost taxpayers more, not less. That includes a $143 million technology contract that Minneapolis gave to Unisys – then renewed twice without competitive bidding. That happened even though Unisys did not provide the favorable pricing its contract required.

The report also highlights how performing public work in-house can result in better quality at a lower price. One of the examples: how MnDOT’s highway striping crews can paint epoxy stripes for half the cost of private competitors.

This story is adapted from the January-February 2014 edition of Council 5’s Stepping Up magazine.

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