Last Sunday, RVtravel.com published a news story I had written about a Colorado audit of its state parks. The audit confirmed what many RVers already knew: that park RV sites were sitting empty despite growing demand, that the state was losing millions of dollars in lost campground fees, and that reservation software that could prevent some of these problems was being misused and even disabled. The causes of these problems, the audit concluded, included lack of training and lack of oversight, as well as inconsistent policy enforcement.
Good news, right? State officials had recognized a problem, authorized an inquiry and turned up sufficient data to prescribe a series of fixes. Best of all, the state had made all this information public. It had said, in effect, “We’ve been screwing up. This is what we’ve done wrong, and this is what we’re going to do about it.”
The response from too many RVtravel readers? “Proof” yet again that government is inherently inefficient at best, corrupt at worst. For one, the audit was a “shining example [of the state] managing parks for their convenience and campers be damned.” For another, the audit exposed a cynical ploy in which “the workload for the park staff is cut in half if half the sites are unoccupied.” According to a third, “You could probably have reported that the parks system is run by a state or federal government entity and that would say it all! I can’t think of a single thing run by our elected officials that is managed properly.”
And those are only the least vituperative of the anti-government comments that came in, with RV Travel staff expunging the very worst.
Hold itself accountable
Here’s the thing, though: Inefficiency—and even corruption—are hardwired into the species. We all mess up on occasion, we all are tempted by things we shouldn’t contemplate, we all tend toward taking the easy road. There’s nothing unique about civil servants that elevates them above the human condition. What’s remarkable is not that government workers are as susceptible to such failings as anyone else, but that government—good government—will hold itself publicly accountable for its blunders. It will be transparent. It will authorize audits and publish the results and explain what it will do about them.
When’s the last time you saw private business do that?
When’s the last time you saw a corporation, without a prior government investigation, disclose that it had cut corners to produce an airplane that under certain circumstances would override its pilots and dive into the ground? When is the last time you saw a company come clean, on its own, about bribing doctors and pharmacies to dispense an addictive narcotic that would produce an epidemic of American overdose deaths? When’s the last time you saw a Wall Street player confess that packaging subprime mortgages and selling them as investment vehicles was a rip-off—before that or some other financial “product” plunged the nation into a financial crisis?
Why do you suppose we have government agencies inspecting meat-packing plants and nuclear facilities, monitoring mining waste and smokestack emissions, sampling drinking water and farm produce? Because history and experience have shown that a system whose highest goal is to make money can’t be left unsupervised—that the private sector has little incentive to identify its own shortcomings, to share them with the public, or to fix what’s wrong if doing so cuts into profits. And that’s where government comes in, however imperfectly.
Here’s something else I took away from Colorado’s audit—something that the vitriolic commenters inadvertently underscored: Some significant number of problems uncovered were due to state employees trying to avoid confrontation. Penalizing no-shows by re-booking their sites, for example, risks unpleasantness if the campers then show up and their sites are no longer available—so avoid the hassle by leaving the sites empty, sometimes for days on end.
Or consider campers who show up a day or more before their reservation, or who insist on staying past their departure date, or who move themselves to a different site because it’s unoccupied and they don’t like the site they have. Telling such people they can’t do what they want runs the risk of full-blown, in-your-face, spittle-spewing venom. Have that experience a few times and you, too, will be tempted to set aside a supply of closed back-up sites.
Not all campers are like that, of course, just as not all RV Travel readers respond with knee-jerk contempt for any limits on their “sovereignty,” some imagined and some simply necessary for us to coexist with each other. But even a relatively small number of these brittle reactionaries can have a long-term corrosive effect on the body politic, chipping away at the mutual respect we need to function as a society, undermining the confidence of those on whom we rely to protect our common interests, poisoning discourse and discouraging those who actually have something thoughtful to contribute.
Colorado’s state parks audit is worthy of praise
By most accounts, moreover, that “relatively small number” of angry, entitled campers is growing, even as respect (never mind appreciation!) for institutions of all kinds is dissolving. We are an increasingly brutish people, as reflected in the cascading headlines about mass shootings and threats against public officials and the airy dismissal of actual violence as merely passionate discourse. All of that makes the Colorado audit of its state parks all the more remarkable and worthy of praise for being conducted at all, when it would have been so much easier not to.
The bottom line for me is that the dismissive naysayers, if left unchallenged, will encourage the very dysfunction they claim to deplore. By tearing down attempts at self-corrective behavior, they increase the odds that as a society we’ll careen out of control and go over the precipice—at which point, peering at the wreckage they helped produce, they’ll pat themselves on the back for being so insightful.
Andy Zipser is the author of Renting Dirt, the story of his family’s experiences owning and operating a Virginia RV park, and of Turning Dirt, a step-by-step guide for finding, buying and operating an RV park and campground. Both books are available through bookstores or at Amazon.com.