Reinventing Government

NEAL R. PEIRCE

February 17, 1992|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

The best primer yet on how America's governments can survive the fiscal agonies of the '90s hits the bookstores this week.

It's David Osborne and Ted Gaebler's ''Reinventing Government'' (Addison-Wesley). It argues that we need ''an American perestroika'' -- a new way of handling the public enterprise that rejects traditional, top-down, bureaucratic government as decisively as the Russians did their authoritarian state.

There's no time to waste, Mr. Osborne told the newly formed National Commission on the State and Local Public Service, meeting recently in Jackson, Mississippi.

Federal and state-local governments alike, he said, have ''hit the wall.'' The massive fiscal shortfalls that struck the federal government in the '80s have spread to state and local government. Public confidence is at an all-time low. Thoughts of tax increases trigger fierce voter resistance.

And the problem won't dissipate when the recession ends, says Mr. Osborne, because too many American governments still function on the rigid, command-and-control industrial model of the early 20th century.

Industry itself is changing: Just to survive, major American corporations have had to redefine their missions, transform operations to promote excellence and innovation. Typically, they are decentralizing and delegating major authority -- with accountability for results -- to their operating divisions.

Now governments, Mr. Osborne argues, must do the same. They have to learn to ''steer rather than row.'' Instead of keeping on massive public worker cadres to deliver services, they have to be catalysts to get businesses, nonprofits, public-private partnerships into the game of governance.

Their pitch isn't anti-government, the authors claim. They insist that there's still massive public responsibility for education, welfare, equity, safety, a healthy economic climate. But government has to use all manner of tools -- from contracting out services to tax policy to vouchers to impact fees -- to achieve public goals.

Mr. Osborne is trying to practice some of what he preaches as an adviser to Massachusetts' Republican Gov. William Weld and Florida's Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles. Mr. Gaebler learned the new arts of governing first-hand as city manager of Visalia, California.

The most ''pro-government'' of all American cities, Washington, D.C., is about to wrestle with the new model. Faced with shortfalls in the city's $3.3 billion budget, Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly is desperate to cut costs, promote efficiency and &r jump-start the local economy.

She's talking of contracting out scores of services to small businesses and nonprofits which hire local residents. Vehicle maintenance, janitorial work, trash collection, vocational training, social work are all on her list.

Mayor Kelly figures the recession gives her a rare opportunity to restructure her city's government -- to meet the ''more for less'' demand that voters have been voicing in elections ever since the tax revolt of the late '70s.

It's not an easy change. For one thing it flies in the face of one of yesteryear's reforms -- civil service. Government employee unions and assorted special interests are likely to fight the changes tooth and nail.

But career paths for remaining public employees can be made a lot more rewarding, Messrs. Osborne and Gaebler claim, when governments learn to slim down and provide managers and employees with new incentives for improved performance.

Another obstacle for ''reinvention'' is to persuade top government executives to ''let go,'' give managers increased scope and then judge results -- as restructured businesses are being forced to do to compete globally. It means legislators have to desist from a lot of the fine-line prescriptions they're prone to sticking into law.

New, ''entrepreneurial'' government began to sprout around America in the '80s, Messrs. Osborne and Gaebler claim. Flexible multi-year budgeting in Sunnyvale, California; school choice in New York's East Harlem and in Minnesota, and competitive trash collection in Phoenix are successful examples.

Sometimes a political upheaval, or sheer staying power of old bureaucracies, undoes one of the new models -- just as some of the ''hero'' corporations cited in Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman's ''In Search of Excellence'' in the early '80s have since fallen on hard times.

Mr. Osborne's explanation is that a lot of the experiments of the '80s were done inside outmoded, dysfunctional government systems. The challenge of the '90s, he says, is to ''change basic systems,'' try full-scale ''reinvention.''

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