Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Re-Thinking Utah's Government Four-Day Work Week

“No, you can’t go down there today,” I recently heard my wife tell my mother. “Remember, Utah government offices aren’t open on Fridays anymore.”

Last summer, Utah Governor Jon M. Huntsman, Jr. forced most state employees to adopt a four-day work week, working 10 hours per day. One of the chief arguments for doing so was that closing down state facilities one additional day per week would result in significant savings. So now most state buildings are closed on Fridays.

Regardless of what proponents think of this measure, it is exactly the opposite of good customer service. Yes, offices are open later Monday through Thursday so that people have more availability outside of many people’s standard working hours, but being closed for business three days in a row is not a good way to serve customers.

When you’ve got a monopoly, you have little incentive to satisfy customers. Your main goal is to erect barriers high enough that competition is prevented. You may notice, for example, that most serious battles in the public education industry involve thwarting competition. Making the federal government a competitor in the health insurance market (the so-called public option) would quickly force private insurers out of the market and would result in a de facto monopoly that would have even less incentive to serve its customers than does today’s odd health insurance model.

Utah Policy’s LaVarr Webb says in this editorial that his hunch is that the four-day work week isn’t even achieving its energy and money saving goals. At any rate, he thinks soon-to-be-Governor Gary Herbert and the legislature “ought to conduct a good study” that “should take a good, hard look at the four-day work week and see if it's fulfilling the intent of Gov. Huntsman who implemented it.” Webb notes:
“The four-day work week was instituted hastily, with little study or analysis. Since then, no really good examination has been done regarding how much energy is actually being saved, and whether state productivity and customer service have suffered.”
Usually when government decides and implements something “hastily,” it creates more problems than it solves. As I have often said, our Founders created a system of government that is supposed to get plenty of input, and then debate and deliberate in order to adopt the most broadly acceptable course of action. This process is not intended to occur rapidly. It can be a rather ponderous and lethargic course. But when we circumvent this process we usually cause long term problems. Webb opines:
“Currently, many state buildings are sitting empty three of seven days each week (while still consuming a certain amount of energy even when empty). By contrast, private industry attempts to make more efficient and productive use of facilities and infrastructure, not less. That's why a manufacturing company, for example, adds a graveyard shift and runs its facilities around-the-clock, getting more efficient use from its facilities. We certainly ought not to be constructing new state buildings when many of them are sitting empty three days a week.”
Private business stifles competition either by providing superior service to customers or by conniving to keep competitors from entering their market. This latter course usually requires the collusion of government. Government stymies competition by fiat — by force. It can use its considerable muscle to pass laws and to implement newly minted executive powers to take control of entire market segments at the drop of a hat, as we have recently discovered. Customer service doesn’t even enter the equation here.

In the absence of competition, it is important for elected officials to make sure that their constituents — who happen to be both the source and the customers of government — are being well served. I suspect that in the case of the four-day work week, Webb is correct in his hunch that Utah’s citizens are ill served, both as providers and consumers of government. Will any of our elected officials do anything about this?


David said...

I recall hearing a radio news story about the energy savings coming from the 4-day work week. I'm not going to suggest that they had enough information to convince anyone that the move has been a success (the thing I remember clearly is that they have not realized the 20% reduction in energy costs that Huntsman promoted) but I don't think its fair for LaVarr Webb to suggest that they are not looking to see if the goals are being met.

Reach Upward said...

It turns out that lawmakers are looking into it. Webb notes that Rep. Craig Frank has responded that a committee held a hearing precisely on this matter this morning. Legislators, it turns out, have the same concerns as Webb.

Whether the 20% savings is realized or not (including productivity and efficiency impacts), the fact remains that the four-day work week is bad customer (taxpayer) service. I think Webb also has a valid point about underutilization of taxpayer funded facilities.