Friday 25 August 2006

Business should be private

Anyone who reads our impressive range of national newspapers will have seen a whole lot of criticism of the efforts by organisations like Air Botswana and BTC to privatise. Obviously we should all welcome public debate involving ordinary people like us as well as politicians and commentators, it’s an important issue. However I can’t help but react to some of the resistance to privatisation that is based either on outdated and nonsensical arguments or just an irrational objection to progress. Last week I heard a caller to a radio station say that he thought privatisations were a conspiracy by evil capitalists to defraud the poor honest workers from their birthright. I also saw letters from certain staff organisations who predict that revenue will drop, costs will increase and job losses will result. This, of course, is despite experiences elsewhere in the world where the exact opposite has happened. Everywhere else when publicly-owned organisations have been privatised they have tended to become competitive, commercially-oriented and profitable, all things that lead to expansion, higher paid staff and better services.

So why do people come up with these nonsensical objections? My suspicion is that most of the objections come from people who hold very strong political and philosophical positions that are, shall we say, old-fashioned (see, I CAN be polite).

Some of the objectors clearly just believe that industry should be “in the hands of the people”. However if you look at what they actually propose you find that this isn’t entirely true. They DON’T in fact want companies to be owned by the people, they want them to be owned by the government.

Now, this may not be entirely obvious but think about it. The government and the people aren’t the same thing. Governments are usually populated by people who, despite their qualifications and training have little, if any, experience of running a company. They can be very good at filling in forms, discussing endlessly complicated processes, procedures and policies, getting Masters degrees from far away places and having extremely valuable and rewarding retreats to Kasane but very little experience of actually doing anything commercial.

Ask yourself this. How many people do you know who have left a successful career in the private sector to join government? I’ve given it some thought and I can think of only one and his job is actually to shake things up so he’s hardly typical.

So why would you want an industry to be run by such people?

The alternative of course is to have the so-called publicly owned company staffed with commercially experienced people but have the whole thing report back into government. Same problem there. The strategists, the people who control the purse strings and who authorise changes and visions are the same government people. With all due respect to our leaders most politicians seem to come from a government background so they also suffer from the same impoverished background.

One of the key things about the commercial world that struck me when I left government to join the private sector many years ago was the decision-making process. I went from an organisation that took 6 months to authorise the purchase of a laptop to one where it took less than six hours.

Take the example of BTC. Why is it that we are only now getting technical goodies like ADSL and VOIP and all the other cute things that they’ve had in other countries for years? It’s not due to a lack of talented, visionary people in BTC, it’s down to the fact that before they start implementing these things they need government permission. We all know long that takes.

The other reason I think some people object to privatisation is that they somehow think that a private company doesn’t contribute financially towards the national good as much as a publicly owned one. I’ve never quite understood this. Yes, a publicly owned parastatal will pass it’s profits to government and they might conceivably be passed to the public in the forms of schools and roads but haven’t people heard of corporation tax, income tax and VAT? Banks, supermarkets, restaurants, every private sector, profit-oriented company has to pay a significant proportion of their profits to the government in corporation tax. The employees will also be paying more and more of their income in income tax. In fact the better paid the employees are the more they contribute.

Then there’s the customer service angle. Companies that are free to follow the profit motive will know that the money they make comes from us, their customers, not from a huge pot called government. They can start to focus on what WE want, not what the powers that be decide we should have.

Yes, it’s scary to shed our sense of ownership of industries and cast it adrift in the harsh reality of the free market but let me ask you one final question. When was the last time that YOU personally had any say in the direction a publicly owned company was taking? Never. But last time you selected supermarket A over supermarket B that’s exactly what you did.

When Air Botswana is privatised, and in my view the sooner the better, I will continue to choose them over the competition every time. Well, so long as they continue too be the best.

This week’s stars!

  • Michelle at Office Depot in Gaborone for being friendly and flexible
  • All the team at Kalahari Quilts again for their creativity
  • Again all the team at CafĂ© Dijo for excellent coffee, food and welcome

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