Challenging Privatization in Scott Walker’s Budget

by Robert Kraig,
Executive Director, Citizen Action of WI

Welcome to the Progress Points Message Blog. In our first blog, we will take a quick look at how to build public opposition to privatization. A brief introduction to this new blog series can be found here.

There are many examples of dangerous privatization in Scott Walker’s budget. These privatization schemes include favoring private voucher schools over public schools, contracting-out long term care for seniors and people with disabilities to large for profit insurance companies, making Walkers’ semi-private jobs agency (WEDC) even less accountable, and a vague plan to spin off the University of Wisconsin System.

Although it is obvious to progressive activists that these schemes will lead to higher cost, lower quality services, and less public accountability, messaging this issue is very tricky in the current public environment.

Our good friends at Topos Partners have done valuable opinion research which provides a very useful guidance. Topos uses a unique research model that relies on ethnographic research and real-world conversations instead of traditional polling.

There are three key challenges that must be overcome when talking to the public about privatization.

First, there is not a clear distinction for most Americans between public and private, which makes it difficult to for average citizens to see a clear distinction. So when a progressive makes the charge that conservatives are seeking to privatize something, most of the public audience does not know precisely what that means.

Second, because of the success of conservative propaganda most Americans assume government is wasteful and inefficient. This is the current default setting in public opinion, not a condition we can allow to persist in the long term if we want to achieve progressive values.

Third, business is seen as effective, efficient, and innovative. This is not really true (think about the cable company or the insurance claims process) but it is part of current common sense nonetheless.

Public assumptions about governmental inefficiency and business efficiency, regardless of their accuracy, make it very hard to win a privatization debate once the efficiency frame is triggered. In fact, the common sense created by decades of withering right-wing attacks on government make it very challenging to make a compelling case for public provision of services. So if you are debating privatization in the current state of public opinion you need to shift the frame.

This is a debate progressives must win in the long term in order to justify the use of our own democratic government to solve our most pressing problems. So I am not proposing that we abandon the debate over the role of government, but that we get smarter about when and how to debate it. A consistent theme in the Progress Points Message Blog will be that we need to build our long term persuasion goals into everything we do.

Topos Partners opinion research found that the best approach to turning around the privatization debate is to shift the frame from efficiency to control. In other words, the question is not who can do it cheaper, but instead the risk of handing over control of vital public services to private business. As noted above, we should not permanently abandon the debate over efficiency and effectiveness, but we cannot lead with it. The idea of “control,” if you think about it, is really at base about fundamental democratic values that government works best when it is open and publicly accountable.

Topos Partners suggests the following sample language on privatization:

      The main reason to be wary about handing over a service or asset to a private company is that we are giving up control over how       it is operated. Once we hand over control, or even outright ownership, if the private company starts running the operation into           the ground, or charging exorbitant fees, we have very little say. When the public is in control, it can demand that operations be         open to public review, accountable to the people, and run in the public interest. Privatization means giving control to people who         may have entirely different goals and priorities. . .

What you notice right-away about this frame is that the public is aligned with government, as “we,” and that businesses looking to take over public services are outside entities which “we” can’t control and act in its own interest, not the public interest. You also notice that the language is very concrete and accessible, the kind of language you could use at a coffee shop or a family gathering.

This “control” frame has to be adapted to each instance of privatization. The way privatization plays out in our schools is a little different than how it plays out in long term care.  

If we can start using this frame across all these issues, Wisconsin progressives can use the public’s strong commitment to democratic values to build a new common sense about the public institutions and services we have built up over the years through long term investments.

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