The common perception among many Americans is that government simply can’t do anything right.

There are whole books of jokes that feature government as the punch line. See those three guys filling a pothole? One’s working and two are supervising. But, what the heck, that’s close enough for government work.

To be sure, there are lots of inefficiencies in some government programs and because of the sheer size of the federal government, often one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing.

We know about that because in our democracy, government is open. When a government official or a bureaucrat does something foolish or wastes valuable resources or unnecessarily spends taxpayers’ money, there are news stories about it. When defense contracts come in way over budget, it makes the news. When a government official holds a meeting at a lavish resort, it hits the press, as it should. With rare exceptions, they can’t hide their mistakes or misdeeds.

That’s not usually the case in private business. Although the mistakes are just as rampant, just as wasteful, just as irresponsible, it’s much easier to sweep the problem under the rug without anyone except the insiders knowing about it. There is no free press serving as a watchdog on private business, as is its function with government.

Unless, of course, there’s a government connection involved.

That’s why this past year we’ve become privy to some of the mistakes that the private sector makes. Scott Walker’s quasi-governmental Department of Economic Development, for example. Turning the old Department of Commerce into more of a private endeavor has produced a host of embarrassments for the Walker administration. Grants and loans were made in violation of federal regulations. No one kept track of whether loans to businesses were being paid back.

And there’s the example of LogistiCare, the private company that the state hired to replace the governmental agencies that were responsible for providing transportation to Medicaid and BadgerCare Plus patients.

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Ever since the service was privatized to ostensibly save taxpayers money over what the government service was costing, there have been problems. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel documented late and no-show rides, long hold times on reservation and complaint lines, and a number of other embarrassing breakdowns. Plus, cost savings weren’t realized.

It got so bad that LogistiCare asked to be let out of its contract and the state is currently looking to replace the private company.

These are but two small examples of how privatization isn’t always better. For every example of alleged ineptitude in government there’s an example of incompetence in the private sector. There are some things that government, working on behalf of all the people, can do better, just as there are some jobs that only private companies should do.

The challenge for us is to not yield to inaccurate perceptions, but to be able to tell the difference.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com