Don't Just Talk About Making Government Work

NEAL R. PEIRCE

April 12, 1993|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- Starting with President Bill Clinton, this town's newest phrase is ''reinventing government,'' a tribute to David Osborne, whose ''Reinventing Government,'' last year, may be the first public administration book ever to make a best-seller list.

But it's not just ''the feds'' who have the problem of overlapping bureaucracies, antiquated personnel systems and turned-off workers. The best state and local government leaders also know that without radical changes in how they do business, there will be no way to finance the schools, road building, health, criminal justice and the myriad other challenges they face in the '90s.

Enter a new organization to help them out. Its chair is none other than David Osborne, who says governments must now go through the same radical restructuring that is sweeping through American business. His Alliance for Redesigning Government will try to connect the thousands of government reformers who now, in his words, find themselves part of ''a movement without a central nervous system.''

Home for the new alliance is the congressionally chartered National Academy for Public Administration, now shifting under a new president, R. Scott Fosler, to the kind of ''entrepreneurial'' mode Mr. Osborne recommends for government itself. As a journalist ''fellow'' of NAPA, this writer has been working with Mr. Fosler, Mr. Osborne and Alliance director Barbara Dyer to launch the effort.

As a first move, we decided to assemble a balanced, bipartisan advisory committee of government officials, labor, nonprofit and media leaders. Aiming for 20 acceptances, we sent out 40 invitations. To our astonishment, 37 people accepted.

Just a sampling of the list includes our vice-chairs, Oregon Gov. Barbara Roberts (D) and former Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut (R), U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), Govs. William Weld (R-Mass.) and Roy Romer (D-Colo.), and Mayors Sharpe James (Newark) and John Norquist (Milwaukee). We also have such star city managers as Camille Barnett (Austin) and Robert Bobb (Richmond).

Public employee unions, still suspicious about ''reinvented government,'' have also signed on through such leaders as Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers and Gerald McEntee of AFSCME.

An early project suggested for the alliance, in fact, would be a ''design lab'' bringing together public employee union leaders with state-local level executives to design guidelines for less adversarial management-labor relations.

A ''design lab'' to design blueprints for ''high performance'' government organizations is already under way. The solutions identified will be tested in specific governments, and if they work, publicized for others to try.

''Reinventing'' sounds a lot easier than it is. When President Clinton announced his big federal reorganization task force, for example, Texas State Controller John Sharp was right on the platform, the clear implication being that Washington would emulate the sweeping performance review of Texas state government that Mr. Sharp executed in 1991.

Mr. Sharp recommended $4.2 billion in savings; the Texas legislature approved $2.6 billion. His report was full of exhortations to ply back layers of bureaucracy and ''re-engineer government.''

But the exercise was a ''top-down'' one. State workers could phone ideas to an 800-hot-line but weren't consulted extensively. Hal Hovey of State Policy Reports discovered that of the ballyhooed $4.2 billion, only 6 percent represented real spending cuts. Most of the rest was accounting sleight-of-hand.

So the new Alliance for Redesigning Government intends to launch a faxed bi-weekly bulletin aimed at thousands of managers and legislators who are anxious to overhaul government service delivery systems, motivate employees and deal citizens more effectively into decision-making.

The bulletin will recognize fresh experiments. But it will also tell about their shortcomings, so that reformers elsewhere can learn from the errors.

Indeed, a second prime audience for the alliance's faxed bulletin may well be the media themselves which, when you think about it, may need reinvention as much as the governments with which they so freely and continuously find fault.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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