Are public enterprises necessarily inefficient?

by Jomo Kwame Sundaram

From the 1980s, various studies purported to portray the public sector as a cesspool of abuse, inefficiency, incompetence and corruption. Books and articles with pejorative titles such as “vampire state”, “bureaucrats in business” and so on thus provided the justification for privatization policies.

Despite the caricature and exaggeration, there were always undoubted horror stories which could be cited as supposedly representative examples. But similarly, by way of contrast, other experiences show that state-owned enterprises (SOEs) can be run quite efficiently, even on commercial bases, confounding the dire predictions of the prophets of public sector doom.

To be sure, unclear and contradictory objectives – e.g., to simultaneously maximize sales revenue, address disparities, generate employment, etc. – often meant ambiguous performance criteria, many open to abuse. Often, SOE failure on one criterion (e.g., cost efficiency) was justified on the grounds of fulfilling other objectives (e.g., employment generation). However, the ambiguity of objectives is not necessarily due to public or state ownership per se.

Problems of coordination among various government agencies and interdepartmental rivalries also played a role.

Some consequences included ineffective monitoring, inadequate accountability or, alternatively, over-regulation.

“Moral hazard” has also been a problem as SOE managements expected sustained financial support from the government, come what may, attributed to weak fiscal discipline or “soft budget constraints”.

Often, SOE managements lacked adequate or relevant skills but were constrained from addressing them expeditiously. But privatization does not automatically solve the problem of lack of managerial skills.

Similarly, privatization of SOEs which are natural monopolies (e.g., public utilities) will not solve problems of inefficiency due to the monopolistic or monopsonistic nature of the industry or market.

Can SOE inefficiency be redressed?

Improvements in SOE management must be required by the national political leadership and can be enabled by increased enterprise and administrative autonomy as well as new incentive systems. Such changes do not require privatization as a prerequisite, but can be achieved by greater decentralization or devolution of administrative authority.

Many SOEs enjoyed monopoly or monopsony powers de jure or de facto, often providing cover for inefficiencies and other abuses. Hence, competition and enterprise reorganization – rather than mere changes in ownership status – are more likely to induce greater enterprise efficiency.

Instead of presuming that privatiza-tion is the only solution, reformers should consider the variety of modes of enterprise reform, privatization, marketi-zation and other measures as options for improving the public sector.

With such an approach, privatiza-tion becomes one among several options available to the government for dealing with the undoubted malaise of many public sectors.

After all, there may well be instances where privatization offers the superior option (e.g., the Hungarian privatization of retail shops), but this should be the policy conclusion after serious consideration of all options available rather than the default option it has become in recent decades.

Remember that many SOEs were set up precisely because the private sector was believed to be unable or unwilling to provide certain services or goods. Such arguments may still be relevant in some cases but no longer relevant in other cases, and perhaps never even true or relevant in yet other cases.

Many SOEs have undoubtedly proven to be problematic, often inefficient. However, privatization has not proved to be the universal panacea for the myriad problems of the public sector it was touted to be.

In many instances, the problem with an SOE is not due to ownership per se, but rather to the absence of explicit, feasible or achievable objectives, or even to the existence of too many, often contradictory goals.

In other cases, the absence of managerial and organizational systems (e.g., flexibility, autonomy) and cultures supportive of such goals and objectives may be the key problem.

Privatization may facilitate the achievement of such organizational goals or objectives with the changes it may bring about in train, but this does not necessarily mean that privatization per se is responsible for the improvements.

In such cases, managerial and organizational reforms may well achieve the same objectives and goals, or even do better, at a reduced cost, and thus prove to be the superior option.

However, the superior option cannot be presumed a priori, but should instead be the outcome of careful consideration of the roots of an organization’s malaise. (IPS)                                       

Third World Economics, Issue No. 628, 1-15 November 2016, p14