25 Years Later, What Happened to ‘Reinventing Government’?

 at Governing: “…A generation ago, governments across the United States embarked on ambitious efforts to use performance measures to “reinvent” how government worked. Much of the inspiration for this effort came from the bestselling 1992 book Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit Is Transforming the Public Sector by veteran city manager Ted Gaebler and journalist David Osborne. Gaebler and Osborne challenged one of the most common complaints about public administration — that government agencies were irredeemably bureaucratic and resistant to change. The authors argued that that need not be the case. Government managers and employees could and should, the authors wrote, be as entrepreneurial as their private-sector counterparts. This meant embracing competition; measuring outcomes rather than inputs or processes; and insisting on accountability.

For public-sector leaders, Gaebler and Osborne’s book was a revelation. “I would say it has been the most influential book of the past 25 years,” says Robert J. O’Neill Jr., the executive director of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA). At the federal level, Reinventing Government inspired Vice President Al Gore’s National Performance Review. But it had its greatest impact on state and local governments. Public-sector officials across the country read Reinventing Government and ingested its ideas. Osborne joined the consulting firm Public Strategies Group and began hiring himself out as an adviser to governments.

There’s no question states and localities function differently today than they did 25 years ago. Performance management systems, though not universally beloved, have become widespread. Departments and agencies routinely measure customer satisfaction. Advances in information technology have allowed governments to develop and share outcomes more easily than ever before. Some watchdog groups consider linking outcomes to budgets — also known as performance-based budgeting — to be a best practice. Government executives in many places talk about “innovation” as if they were Silicon Valley executives. This represents real, undeniable change.

Yet despite a generation of reinvention, government is less trusted than ever before. Performance management systems are sometimes seen not as an instrument of reform but as an obstacle to it. Performance-based budgeting has had successes, but they have rarely been sustained. Some of the most innovative efforts to improve government today are pursuing quite different approaches, emphasizing grassroots employee initiatives rather than strict managerial accountability. All of this raises a question: Has the reinventing government movement left a legacy of greater effectiveness, or have the systems it generated become roadblocks that today’s reformers must work around?  Or is the answer somehow “yes” to both of those questions?

Reinventing Government presented dozens of examples of “entrepreneurial” problem-solving, organized into 10 chapters. Each chapter illustrated a theme, such as results-oriented government or enterprising government. This structure — concrete examples grouped around larger themes — reflected the distinctive sensibilities of each author. Gaebler, as a city manager, had made a name for himself by treating constraints such as funding shortfalls or bureaucratic rules as opportunities. His was a bottom-up, let-a-hundred-flowers-bloom sensibility. He wanted his fellow managers to create cultures where risks could be taken and initiative could be rewarded.

Osborne, a journalist, was more of a systematizer, drawn to sweeping ideas. In his previous book, Laboratories of Democracy, he had profiled six governors who he believed were developing new approaches for delivering services that constituted a “third way” between big government liberalism and anti-government conservatism.Reinventing Government suggested how that would work in practice. It also offered readers a daring and novel vision of what government’s core mission should be. Government, the book argued, should focus less on operating programs and more on overseeing them. Instead of “rowing” (stressing administrative detail), senior public officials should do more “steering” (concentrating on overall strategy). They should contract out more, embrace competition and insist on accountability. This aspect of Osborne’s thinking became more pronounced as time went by.

“Today we are well beyond the experimental approach,” Osborne and Peter Hutchinson, a former Minnesota finance commissioner, wrote in their 2004 book, The Price of Government: Getting the Results We Need in an Age of Permanent Fiscal Crisis. A decade of experience had produced a proven set of strategies, the book continued. The foremost should be to turn the budget process “on its head, so that it starts with the results we demand and the price we are willing to pay rather than the programs we have and the costs they incur.” In other words, performance-based budgeting. Then, they continued, “we must cut government down to its most effective size and shape, through strategic reviews, consolidation and reorganization.”

Assessing the influence and efficacy of these ideas is difficult. According to the U.S. Census, the United States has 90,106 state and local governments. Tens of thousands of public employees read Reinventing Government and the books that followed. Surveys have shown that the use of performance measurement systems is widespread across state, county and municipal government. Yet only a handful of studies have sought to evaluate systematically the impact of Reinventing Government’s core ideas. Most have focused on just one, the idea highlighted in The Price of Government: budgeting for outcomes.

To evaluate the reinventing government movement primarily by assessing performance-based budgeting might seem a bit narrow. But paying close attention to the budgeting process is the key to understanding the impact of the entire enterprise. It reveals the difficulty of sustaining even successful innovations….

“Reinventing government was relatively blind to the role of legislatures in general,” says University of Maryland public policy professor and Governing columnist Donald F. Kettl. “There was this sense that the real problem was that good people were trapped in a bad system and that freeing administrators to do what they knew how to do best would yield vast improvements. What was not part of the debate was the role that legislatures might have played in creating those constraints to begin with.”

Over time, a pattern emerged. During periods of crisis, chief executives were able to implement performance-based budgeting. Often, it worked. But eventually legislatures pushed back….

There was another problem. Measuring results, insisting on accountability — these were supposed to spur creative problem-solving. But in practice, says Blauer, “whenever the budget was invoked in performance conversations, it automatically chilled innovative thinking; it chilled engagement,” she says. Agencies got defensive. Rather than focusing on solving hard problems, they focused on justifying past performance….

The fact that reinventing government never sparked a revolution puzzles Gaebler to this day. “Why didn’t more of my colleagues pick it up and run with it?” he asks. He thinks the answer may be that many public managers were simply too risk-averse….(More)”.