Sunday, May 8, 2011

Private vs. public sector: which is better?

First, a disclaimer: I have never worked in the public sector. However, I have always worked in the nonprofit sector, which, while technically private, has a public mission.

The public sector has been trashed in many quarters of late, and thankfully (in my opinion), the trashing is producing a backlash. Many people are starting to realize just how much all of us benefit from the public sector and its services.

I wrote a post a few months ago at the height of the protests in Wisconsin, about how thankful I am for the government and its libraries, schools, safety net, etc. Now some might say about the stories I shared in that post, "Well, OK, maybe the public sector can do well sometimes, but if it's a choice, the private sector will always do a better job." Competition and profit, they claim, will always result in better service.

Not necessarily. Often the same problems that occur in the public sector also occur in the private sector. For every complaint about waiting in line at the DMV, there's a complaint about waiting at home all day for Comcast to show up, to give one example.

But there are also occasions when the public sector does a better job at the exact same service. I'll share two examples from my life in recent years.

FedEx vs. the Post Office

The Post Office--"Neither snow nor rain...": During Christmas week in 2008, a terrible blizzard hit the Puget Sound region. Not being well-equipped for blizzards, many of us were shut-in for days, and my street was one of many that went unplowed.

On Christmas Eve, my daughter and I went out to build a snowman. Our snow-blanketed street was deserted and silent. After a while, we were surprised to hear a vehicle approaching. Soon a U.S. postal truck, producing the only tire tracks on the road, came into view. The truck stopped at our house and the mail carrier delivered two packages for my daughter, one from each grandmother.

Without that delivery, my daughter would have had only one present on Christmas day, the one her father and I gave her.

FedEx--"A blizzard? Get it yourself!": The day after Christmas, my sister called to ask how my daughter had liked her gift, and we told her we never received it. My sister said, "Man, FedEx sucks! I paid extra for them to deliver it on Christmas Eve!"

When I called FedEx to inquire about it, I was told that they weren't going to deliver until the snow melted, and if I wanted the package sooner, I had to go to the main FedEx facility to pick it up. I stood in line at the facility for about two hours that weekend. A Tacoma News-Tribune article later reported that neither FedEx nor UPS had made any of their deliveries during Christmas week, to the consternation of their customers, but the U.S. Post Office had made all of theirs.

Public sector: 1; private sector: 0.

AIG vs. Washington Labor & Industries

I'm a grant writer, so I work on a computer all day. When my right hand started hurting in 2002, while I still lived in Massachusetts, my first thought was carpal tunnel syndrome. However, an Internet review of my symptoms vs. carpal tunnel's (pain rather than numbness in my middle finger, no pain in the wrist, relief rather than aggravated pain at night) made me realize that wasn't the case.

I filed a workplace injury clain at work (for repetitive stress) and was referred to an orthopedist, who insisted despite my protests that I had carpal tunnel. She treated it as such, aggravating the problem by making me wear a wrist brace that increased my pain and giving me a cortisone shot in the wrist that caused my fingers to curl into a fist that I couldn't uncurl.

I demanded to see someone else and eventually was able to see a hand therapist (a subset of occupational therapy) who correctly diagnosed tendonitis and was able to successfully treat it.

AIG--"Let's give you the run-around": However, AIG, through which my employer had our worker's comp insurance, refused to honor the claim because I hadn't accepted the first doctor's (incorrect) diagnosis and (harmful) treatment. It was a full year before AIG finally paid on the claim, after numerous phone calls and letters to them from the HR person at my job, the hand therapy clinic, and me. During almost all our dealings with them, they were rude and incompetent (for example, we'd send a fax, call to ensure they'd received it, and a week later would be told that we never sent it).

When AIG had all those problems during the 2008 financial crisis, needless to say I wasn't surprised.

WA Labor & Industries--"We're thorough but caring": When my thumb started to hurt this winter, due to my previous experience I soon recognized the problem. I went through the same process of filing a claim at work and seeing a doctor, who (as I expected) diagnosed DeQuervain's tendonitis in my thumb.

The state Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) handles worker's comp claims in Washington. They've been very thorough in the paperwork my employer and I have had to complete, as well as their follow-up--they obviously don't want anyone to game the system. But they've also been very kind and competent in my dealings with them, and approved my claim in about five weeks.

The public sector wins again!

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