PRESIDENT Bush endorsed the concept of "volunteerism" as vital to democracy in his "thousand-points-of-light" speech four years ago.
Last week President Bush endorsed another potentially far-reaching concept, "privatization." He issued an executive order encouraging state and local agencies to sell public bridges, roads, tunnels, and sewage-treatment plants to private companies. Bush contends, as did the Reagan administration, that private businesses can operate parts of government with greater efficiency and less cost than government can.
Bush's decision indicates the degree to which privatization has become an acceptable alternative at federal, state, and local government levels. Combine this with the growth of voluntarism in the United States as a way to bypass inefficient government or aid the work of institutions, and some experts suggest the US may be altering the way it governs itself.
Since 1988, according to national surveys, voluntarism has increased significantly, even to the point where some volunteers are doing what government and institutions used to do.
"I think we are witnessing a real paradigm shift in American politics," said John Guardiano, a fellow at the Reason Foundation, a Santa Monica, Calif., organization that encourages privatization. "It is a shift away from bureaucratization, away from centralization, toward the use of markets and private initiative at the local and state level. Both political parties are embracing it."
James Pinkerton, a member of the Bush-Quayle '92 Campaign Committee, told an audience at Harvard University recently that President Bush wants to create "a post-bureaucratic society."
"The new paradigm's organizing principle is that government's purpose and method should be defined by the services the people need and want, not by what the system is currently designed to deliver," Mr. Pinkerton said.
Examples of increased voluntarism and privatization can be found in every state.
* In California there are 75 "contract cities." La Mirada, for instance, awards private contracts for everything from police and fire protection to trash collecting and running the library. The town has 60 employees while the same-sized town next door, La Habra, has 300. Officials say La Mirada runs more efficiently than before.
* Parent volunteers at a fund-strapped public school in New York City raised $55,000 last year through dances, food sales, and direct-mail appeals. The money was used for a music teacher's salary, a classroom aide, and art supplies; $30,000 was saved for a computer lab.
* National polls and volunteer organizations report substantial increases in the numbers of volunteers in their 30s and 40s with a willingness either to form new altruistic groups or to help established organizations grapple with critical problems like AIDS and juvenile delinquency.
* In Springfield, Mass., a coalition composed of the local chamber of commerce, the Mitre Corporation, and the superintendent of schools proposed an alternative high school to try to reduce the community's 40 percent dropout rate. The school would combine private and public funds, be open to anyone over 16, and operate nights and weekends as well as weekdays.
* Out of frustration with the legal system, a bodyguard service in Milwaukee is protecting battered women served by the Task Force on Battered Women. A spokeswoman for the organization said, "We are using bodyguards to do what the system is failing to do, and that is to protect women." Last year over 6,000 Milwaukee women asked for restraining orders against husbands or boyfriends.
* A survey by the Mercer Group in Atlanta found that municipalities and county governments in 34 states have contracted with private firms for services. All said they saved money, and 45 percent said service had improved.
To varying degrees, all of the above examples evolved because public institutions are either short staffed, overwhelmed, or underfunded. "Local and state officials are not idealogues," Mr. Guardiano said, "They are interested in policies that work, in providing services, and in balancing their budgets. With cuts in projected revenues, they are being forced to think differently, to turn to the private sector for assistance. Many problems defy federal solutions."
Perhaps the most notable example in recent years of a volunteer in action is Bertha Gilkey and the historic public-housing revolt she started in St. Louis in 1976. Ms. Gilkey organized the tenants to reverse their passivity and reclaim power to maintain a safe, liveable community environment.
Critics of privatization warn that the real issue is not necessarily which entity, public or private, can get the job done. David Osborne, co-author of the book, "Reinventing Government," has written that it is a question of "monopoly vs. competition," and that private monopolies can be equally as inefficient as public monopolies.
Mr. Osborne sees privatization as only one answer, but warns that government cannot be "contracted to the private sector," and in fact must "steer our society."