Blueprint for change

The bible of the reinvention movement

When Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is Transforming the Public Sector first came out in 1992, the then-governor of California, Pete Wilson, hailed its authors, David Osborne and Ted Gaebler, as “the true prophets of a new paradigm.” Bill Clinton, then a candidate for president, said, “This book should be read by every elected official in America.”

A glance at the book’s contents page gives an idea of its thrust. The chapters have names like “Community-Owned Government: Empowering rather than Serving"; “Competitive Government: Injecting Competition into Service Delivery"; “Mission-Driven Government: Transforming Rule-Driven Organizations"; “Results-Oriented Government: Funding Outcomes, Not Inputs"; “Customer-Driven Government: Meeting the Needs of the Customer, Not the Bureaucracy"; and so on.

The book is a set of prescriptions to create new systems that make agencies more like their private-sector counterparts: less rule-bound and more flexible, less hierarchical and more participatory, less focused on the needs of the agency and more customer and service oriented.

What makes it especially valuable and has given it such credibility in public administration circles is that its theorizing is grounded throughout in the actual experiences of agencies that have tried to reinvent themselves.

The first example given, early in the book’s introduction, involves the city of Visalia, south of Fresno. Proposition 13, the 1978 property-tax initiative, had cut the school district’s funding by 25 percent, so district officials were unable to put a much-needed pool in at one of the high schools.

Then, in 1984, a parks and recreation employee heard from a friend in Los Angeles that the Olympic committee wanted to sell its training pool. He took this information to school district officials, who quickly realized that this was an opportunity to put in a pool for half the projected cost, $400,000 instead of $800,000. But they needed to go through the approval process, which would take at least two weeks, and, as the parks employee learned, two colleges also wanted the pool and were racing to come up with the $60,000 deposit that would seal the deal.

So the parks employee got in his car and took a check to L.A. that afternoon.

The reason he was able to come up with the money so quickly, Osborne and Gaebler explain, was because Visalia had adopted “a radically new budget system, which allowed managers to respond quickly as circumstances changed.” First, the system had “eliminated all line items within departmental budgets—freeing managers to move resources around as needs shifted. Second, it allowed departments to keep what they didn’t spend from one year to the next, so they could shift unused funds to new priorities.”

As it happened, the parks department had saved $60,000 toward a new pool. It used that money to pay the deposit, and together the city and the school district purchased and installed the new pool.

This is just one of hundreds of examples the authors cite in this remarkable, even revolutionary, book. The kind of radical change it endorses is never easy, however. Reinventing government is as difficult as switching a farm to organic growing: Almost everything must change, and it can be a struggle.

Greg Jones is quick to emphasize that the ideas in Reinventing Government are “basic management and leadership principles.” He doesn’t subscribe to all of the book’s prescriptions, such as the idea that government should compete with the private sector. “What I do subscribe to,” he says, “is the notion that we need to focus on outcomes, accountability, measuring efficiency and effectiveness, risk taking, [having] high expectations and capacity building.

“These types of changes in thinking take time,” he cautions. “They can’t be implemented in a day, week or year, and they have to be tailored to our particular working environment.”