The Prime Minister is not a CEO

The government is not a private company, no matter how tempted we might be to consider Belgium as a commercial enterprise. A country simply does not comply with the laws of the private sector and vice versa, says Karel Joos…
‘What if the government was a private company?’

This is the slogan Voka chose for its New Year’s event in January. The Flemish Network of Businesses asks, with a nod toward the popular TV show ‘What if?’, for a more efficient and more effective government arguing that citizens and businesses should get greater value for their money.

For years now, it has been the done-thing to measure the results of the public sector by comparing them to the results of companies in the private sector. On a regular basis, the Prime Minister gets compared to a CEO, and the government to the board of directors of Belgium Ltd. High ranking officials are criticised for having insufficient managerial qualities, with key figures from the corporate world drafted in to lead public enterprises or external agencies. The idea is that the government should mirror the way commercial businesses are run, because these companies have experience with market pressures and that would result in the best management.

This idea is incorrect in the first place. Secondly, it misses the point.

With regards to the idea being incorrect, I like to think of the Sociological System Theory as proposed by Niklas Luhmann and Jurgen Habermas. They claim that both societal subsystems are fundamentally different, each with their own ideologies. For the government, it is all about ‘power’ versus ‘no power’. For the corporate world, it is about ‘having’ versus ‘not having’. In practice, this leads to consensus, andconflicts between politics and economics, and also with other subsystems like the justice system (justice/injustice), science (truth/untruth) and religion (believing/not believing).  When looked at this way, governments and private companies are systems that are inevitably and fundamentally separated from one another, with aims and purposes, other reflexes and a different modus operandi.

Even though an absolute comparison will never be possible, comparing the government to a company misses the point. It’s like saying hand ball and volleyball are one and the same game. Yes, there are some parallels: in both sports you play ball with your hands there are two opposing teams and they both take place indoors. Tactics, power and agility are very important in both sports. Yet no-one would go as far as to say that a volleyball player can teach a hand ball player how to play his own game.  They will always be two types of sport.

Nowadays effectiveness and efficiency as ‘in the private sector’ are no longer absent in the structures of government. A floor at the Department of Economy and Innovation in the Flemish government looks and functions exactly like a services company a few kilometres down the road – modern furniture, comfortable chairs, new computers and smartphones, lockers, trolleys, lots of light and cups of coffee; and consultants going in and out.

But how could one further improve the performance of the different departments of the public sector? Because if one thing is true, it is that there are still differences in the quality of output between the public and private sector. Managers in government face an extremely difficult job, due to the different ideologies they have to adhere to. And promises of salary increases  or threats of dismissal are not an option. They have to find their department’s own unique story to give colour to their activities and use it to motivate their colleagues to make that story come true. They shouldn’t force a story from the private sector on their civil servants. In any case, a lot of private companies do not succeed in tapping into the power of their own story either. 

If there is one parallel which can be drawn between the public and private sector, it’s this: without a strong story reaching the roots of your organisation and shining through, lasting success in our current socio-economic environment is almost impossible to achieve. Hence, governments and companies should fully adhere to their ideologies: the latter create added value that keeps blood flowing through the economy and keeps the rest of the social system functioning. Governments model the best possible framework and safeguard solidarity at the same time.

Business and government find it hard to learn from one another.  But they cannot do without each other and they need to learn to communicate with one another, despite their differences.


A Prime Minister of a country cannot be compared to a CEO. The public and private sector are fundamentally different to one another. They both have their own ideologies. However, they both need a strong story and have to learn to communicate with each other despite their differences. 

Article originally published on De Standaard. Dutch version (PDF) here.


Karel Joos

Partner, Belgium

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