How Tennessee’s Privatization Process Shuts Out Stakeholders

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Who writes the rules matters. The ongoing effort by Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam to privatize the facility support staff of state-run universities, parks, and National Guard armories is proof of this. Thus far, this push has happened mostly behind closed doors and entirely at the discretion of the governor and a small group of decision-makers.

Let’s set aside the fact that privatization has been proven to be a bad deal for Tennessee and other states, and that UT Knoxville made the intentional decision to end outsourcing just four years ago.

Let’s set aside the more than 4,000 state employees whose livelihoods will be affected by privatization and by the loss of millions of dollars in wages and benefits.

Let’s even set aside the fact that the projected $12 million in annual savings at UT Knoxville will come directly at the expense of programs and services that make the university run efficiently and sustainably.

Instead, let’s focus on the process for making such a dramatic decision, and on who is being given a say in this process.

Here is what we know right now: Governor Haslam wants to award a 10-year contract worth roughly $5 billion to a single company to manage facilities across the state. One of three companies being considered for the deal is Jones Lang LaSalle, a company in which Governor Haslam has invested in the past and with which he’s been criticized for his close relationship. Once a contract has been handed out, the group that measures the contractor’s success at meeting benchmarks will be made up of six people from the state and six from within the company.

In other words, once a contract is signed, any winning company would be effectively negotiating against itself when it came to delivering and pricing services.

You won’t hear about any of these myriad conflicts of interest from the governor’s office, however. In fact, Haslam’s allies in the statehouse are pushing a bill that would keep state vendors’ names private—protecting their confidentiality at the cost of the public’s right to know where its $5 billion is going.

Meanwhile, the process for deciding if and how privatization happens is completely opaque. What about the concerns of the students, the workers, and the people of Knoxville that will be living with privatization? As of now, they’ve been told to “wait and see.”

Stories like this are why the Roosevelt Institute @ Tennessee participated in the Next Generation Blueprint for 2016, a document built by 1,000 young people from 160 cities, colleges, and universities that challenges our decision-makers to take action as they seek our votes.

We believe that it matters who writes the rules, not just what rules are written. Yet no one in Governor Haslam’s office has offered a seat at the table to the stakeholders who will be directly affected by their decision. The only point of pressure we have is to ask UT Knoxville Chancellor Jimmy Cheek to choose to opt out of the plan at the campus level. We’re active in our communities but sidelined for the decisions that are fundamentally reshaping them.

To the credit of the University of Tennessee and its high-level administrators, they seem to be starting to listen, but with no formal way to address this issue, we can only hope that Cheek comes to his senses.

The Blueprint that Roosevelt has created seeks to disrupt the status quo, elevating ideas around engagement that would give stakeholders at UTK a voice. We’re asking our decision-makers to end the vicious cycle of disenchantment and disconnect between government and citizens. The bigger lesson to be learned here—beyond the specifics of the privatization plan—is that Tennessee will find itself in this situation again and again unless the state’s leaders take the initiative and set up systems (like youth counsels and other constituent feedback systems) that give real decision-making power to young people.

We recognize and embrace our responsibility to reshape our politics and make sure Tennessee is not for sale. But leaders like Governor Haslam and University President DiPietro need to meet us halfway. If not, they’re making a disastrous decision for the state in a vacuum, disenfranchising young voters who want to participate in their government beyond the polling booth on Election Day.