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Nordstrom versus Sing Sing

on August 24, 2009 Source: Policy Dialogue on Entrepreneurship


by Tom Sullivan

It is startling how quickly the mood of our country has shifted.  It seemed like just yesterday when the majority of Americans were optimistic about new leadership in Washington and optimistic for our country's future.  Now, when Members of Congress are home and meeting with their constituents over August, they are encountering anger over policies emanating from our nation's capitol. There are plenty of possible reasons for the quick shift in public sentiment.  My feeling is that there has been a major shift in how government wants to treat its customers and thepublic does not like it.

When the President was campaigning and when he embarked on an aggressive 100-day agenda, the eloquence of his ideas lifted people past the immediate recession and gave people hope for how they would be treated under the new regime.  The President's promises of middle class tax cuts , a stimulus that would spur job creation, and health care for all sounded as though people would be taken care of.

Unfortunately, the government's financial bailout has notresulted in more credit availability, the government takeover of auto companies has not turned around Detroit's economy, people are terrified of higher taxes in the form of increased energy prices, and they are fearful that government will ration healthcare.  It is too soon to tell whether the public's fears are fact-based or misguided.  However, the fear and anger is real.

I believe that the anger arises not just from the text ofthe enormous legislative reforms to financial markets, energy systems, climate change, and healthcare, but from how the reforms embody an attitudinal shift away from customer service.  Legislation moving through Congress and supported by the President endorses strict controls over financial services.  Climate change legislation is commonly referred to as "cap-and-tax."   And, debate over healthcare reform swirlsaround how much control government will have on the health insurance markets and the public's healthcare choices

I live in Virginia and I have noticed how parts of state government embrace their customer service role. The Fairfax County trash and recycling departments, from the government offices to the trash trucks, are living examples of customer service atwork.  Even the race for governor includes a customer service tone, with Bob McDonnell promising to make Virginia the "best state in America in which to open a small business," and committing to removing overly-bureaucratic state systems that get in the way of entrepreneurship. That statement builds on a 3-year project to reform Virginia's state government. The concept is not new.  Nor do Republicans own the concept of streamlining government.  Remember Vice President Al Gore's Reinventing Government initiative?

More candidates for public office should take notice.  Public would rather have the customer service approach of Nordstrom versus the warden's approach at SingSing.


Guest blog contribution from Tom Sullivan, formerChief Counsel for Advocacy at the U.S. Small Business Administration,that also appears on

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