Rancho Cordova revolution

City Manager Ted Gaebler is reinventing government in one of Sacramento County’s newest cities

In Rancho Cordova, City Manager Ted Gaebler is The Man.

In Rancho Cordova, City Manager Ted Gaebler is The Man.

Photo By larry dalton

When the citizens of Rancho Cordova voted to incorporate in 2003, its 55,000 or so residents were in part seeking to escape from what they perceived as Sacramento County’s unresponsive bureaucracy. After all, who better to determine the policies and services city government should provide than the citizens who actually reside within its boundaries? Additionally, the change provided Rancho Cordova the opportunity to reinvent its government, so, naturally, they turned to the man who co-wrote the book on the subject.

Rancho Cordova City Manager Ted Gaebler and co-author David Osborne made big waves when their book, Reinventing Government: The Five Strategies for Reinventing Government, was first published in 1993. President Bill Clinton adopted the book’s title as a rallying cry. Since then, the English version of the book has sold 600,000 copies—phenomenal for a book that primarily appeals to policy wonks and bureaucrats—and has been published in 20 languages, including Korean, Japanese, Chinese and Farsi.

Gaebler has spent his career reinventing governments in places such as East Palo Alto, Nevada County, and Columbia, Md. His approach is fairly straightforward: Elected officials make the policies and leave the day-to-day minutiae of administrating the city’s budgeting to professional administrators such has himself.

Does Gaebler’s approach work? The results—although he modestly declines to take the credit—speak for themselves. This past summer, Rancho Cordova was a finalist in the National Civic League’s All-American City Awards. Just recently, it received special recognition for state planning, awarded by the California Chapter of the American Planning Association, as well as a Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting, awarded by the Government Finance Officers Association.

Sacramento News & Review publisher Jeff vonKaenel recently sat down with Gaebler for a lengthy interview that covered what’s wrong with our various systems of government, what can be done to fix them and, of course, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson’s “strong mayor” initiative. What follows are the more salient points of their conversation.

Over the last several decades, you’ve been talking about the idea of reinventing government in both your books and your work. Can you expand on that a little bit?

Somehow, over 250 years, governments, not just the federal government, but [state and local] governments, fell a little bit into disrepair. Today, governments have a 19 percent approval rating, on average. So we’re not doing too well. There’s lot of reasons for that, some of it resides in the political home with politicians. Some of it, however, resides in the outdated bureaucracies that we have built. I, like many people like me, do not choose to give my creative energy to something that only has a 19 percent approval rate. Therefore, I have always been interested in improving my institution, my industry, rather than just managing it.

I have been able to take individual agencies at the city and county levels and move them toward restoring some of the luster that they had at the time of our Founding Fathers. A major breakthrough for me was finding that the institutions we have were created by man, not by God, and therefore they can be changed by human beings. It’s incumbent upon us to care enough about governments, to learn enough about governments, to change them peacefully, from the inside.

That’s what I have been about, getting smart enough and knowledgeable enough about how governments work to be able to effect administrative change. I’m not a policy guy. I’m about changing how things work on the inside. Those are the arcane issues of budgets, civil service, purchasing and technology implementation—those kinds of things are my problems.

In your book, you talked about elected officials making sure they’re working on policy as opposed to the detail work, and the need for a certain flexibility to be able to change budgets, to reform the administrative side of things to make a real difference.

My particular forte is city and county government. There are things that need to be changed because they have fallen into disrepair over the last hundred years. The civil service system, which once was the panacea, in fact, a correction, for politicians’ corruption in the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s, was an answer to problems before. Now, it’s become a problem in and of itself. It has become rigid, inflexible. It freezes change.

Unionization, which was no question a solution to the problem of abusive bosses, primarily in the private sector, but to some extent in the public sector, has become a problem. Again, there’s less flexibility, more preservation of the status quo and, in many cases, it’s more costly.

Governments have been relatively slow to adapt to new technologies, and there’s no particular reason for that, other than we don’t see ourselves as having a competitive edge. Therefore investing in technology to get ahead and beat our competitors is not something that we do. We rarely think of ourselves as being in a competitive environment.

We’ve suffered a lot of mandates from courts over the past hundred years that have emasculated the flexibility of governments over and over again. We’ve had federal and state mandates and union agreements imposed upon us. There’ve been hundreds of things over the last hundred years that have emasculated managers’ ability to actually manage in a current timeframe with flexibility.

For example, California state law gives county CEOs the ability to spend $5,000 on their own signature, and everything else has to be taken to the elected board. That’s silly. In [Rancho Cordova], we’ve established a $100,000 limit, so we have restored the ability to make decisions in an administrative way that makes sense for today’s society. Now, the city council set that policy, I didn’t just dream that up. They didn’t set it at $1 million or $2 million, so they did impose a limit on it.

What things are you most proud of here in Rancho Cordova that you’ve been able to implement?

We’ve had an opportunity to restore things so they’re not broken. We’ve invested heavily in our employees, in terms of their selection for their retention. Therefore, we haven’t had our employees be interested in the creation of unions. That makes government easier, because there’s not an institution that has to be gone through in order to make changes. There are no work rules to be renegotiated, so we can make changes on how we deliver services to our citizens much more quickly than you could in another kind of governmental environment.

Can you give our readers an example?

We have an ordinance that was established in 2004 that deals with employees’ pay and benefits. The citizens of this community incorporated in 2003, in order to have good services and more locally focused policies. In order to have those services provided to our citizens, [the city council] mandated that the city manager set pay and benefits in such a way that we’ll be able to attract and retain employees who will deliver the promises of cityhood. Which means that I alone set salaries and benefits for all our employees. That isn’t done anywhere else in this state.

So speak to me about how, as a manager, this has enabled you to run a more effective administration. Have you been in the situation before where that wasn’t true?

I don’t want this to be an anti-union piece, or have this [interview] be a focus on unionization, so I want to be a little careful. I was interim city manager of East Palo Alto, a 1-square-mile city with 31,000 people. For seven months, I spent three hours a day dealing with internal squabbles among unions and their people. It was my job to adjudicate those things. That was three hours a day I couldn’t spend on behalf of the citizens because it was spent wrapped around the axle of employee dysfunction. We don’t have that here. That’s a huge benefit to this community.

So that’s one thing that’s very dramatically different.

Purchasing is another. I have $100,000, and [county CEOs] have $5,000. In most governments, if you look at their agendas, they are clogged with purchasing things and contract approvals and discussion of contract approvals. They are just chock-full of nonsense about administrative issues, about buying cars, trucks, asphalt, gasoline. Things citizens [who attend council meetings couldn’t] care less about. It makes it a better experience for our citizens when they come here because they never have to sit through vendor after vendor after vendor getting their contract approved, or having some guy say that Fords are better than Chevys. That’s not public policy. That’s nonsense.

In your book, you referred to your approach allowing elected officials to focus on bigger issues because they’re not dealing with the minutiae.

That’s exactly right. Our vendors’ lives are much better when I can sign somebody’s $30,000 contract. It’s not a policy thing, the council [couldn’t] care less. The city council has granted me that power, so they have the time to focus on the things that citizens care about. That’s a major plus. Most governments spend endless time amending their budgets. Not one single time in six years have we had a budget amendment, because I have the authority to make changes, as long as I don’t exceed the total that the council has set. I can make adjustments in our budget as time goes [along]. That’s a huge benefit to the citizens, to the council, to the staff, to everybody involved.

You wrote the internationally best-selling book Reinventing Government in 1992. Do you feel like governments have made giant leaps forward in the 17 years since then?

Remember, there are 88,256 governments [federal, state and local] in the United States. The federal government has actually made deep changes in several departments. The Department of Agriculture went positive in a variety of ways. Certainly the military has improved dramatically in spots. So there are lots of things that are being done differently in federal government, at the bureaucratic—not policy—level that are much better.

A lot of state governments have made great improvements—a lot of governors have endorsed the reinvention of government. Gov. [Tom] Vilsack of Iowa fully subscribed; three consecutive Oregon governors thoroughly subscribed. George Voinovich, now a retiring senator but governor of Ohio at the time, thoroughly subscribed to it.

In New York City, mayors from [David] Dinkins to [Rudy] Giuliani to [Michael] Bloomberg have all endorsed the reinvention of government. The mayor of Indianapolis, the mayor of Columbus, Ohio; the mayor of Portland [Oregon] and the mayor of San Antonio have made reinventing government their cry to get elected or re-elected.

So what forces are stopping this from becoming even more pervasive?

Well, I’ve often said that there are 280 reasons why governments can never change. In some cases, it’s lack of funding; in some cases it’s state laws; in some cases it’s mandates; and in a few cases, it’s the kind of people who are attracted to governments. One fear that public employees have is of getting somebody unelected for fear of doing something wrong. Everybody knows that if you do something wrong publicly, you’ll get your head handed to you and shown the door. Your whole team will get shown the door. So government employees have learned to be risk-averse, dramatically risk-averse, because there’s no upside, there’s no bonus.

If you asked government workers if they like the way the current system is, what do you think their response would be?

I think there is great frustration among government employees. I think that they are frustrated with society, for looking down upon them. I think they’re frustrated with Rush Limbaugh for making fun of them. I think they are frustrated with the systems within which they work, which is one of the points I make in the book. It’s not bad people, it’s bad systems, and the systems are changeable.

One of the arguments that Kevin Johnson is making now in terms of the strong-mayor system is that there isn’t one centrally located person who has the authority to make decisions, to make certain things happen. How, in terms of your own experiences, does a strong-mayor position fit into that?

The council/manager form of government is basically one of four types of local government we have here in America. The strong mayor is another. The majority of Americans in cities from 10,000 to 500,000 population operate under the council/manager plan. Above 500,000 population, the majority of people live under a strong mayor. That’s the one you see on TV, the one constantly getting headlines: Chicago, New York, L.A., Atlanta, St. Louis, San Diego.

When citizens perceive themselves to be net taxpayers, they care about economy and efficiency in government, and therefore they worship the council/manager plan, which is based on the American corporate model of having policymakers separate from professional administrators. So, I work for citizen volunteers [the Rancho Cordova City Council], all of whom are part-time, extremely part-time. They’re paid $600 or $500 per month, by law, to take a little bit of their time every other Monday night to make policy on behalf of the rest of the citizens. They hire a full-time, deeply seasoned professional administrator. The assumption is that I will hire competently trained professionals to provide the most efficient and economical government around. When citizens value that, they support the council/manager plan.

When citizens perceive themselves as net tax receivers—that they’re getting more federal money, welfare money, agricultural support money, business support money—they perceive that they’re not paying the bill. Somebody else is paying the bill. In San Francisco [a strong-mayor city], it’s been years since the average citizen assumed that they were paying the bill. They assume that somebody else—visitors, tourists, big businesses, the federal government, state government—is paying the bill. Therefore, they value getting at least their group’s share of the pie, if not a little bit more. To get your group’s share of the pie, you have to have numbers, you have to have political muscle. That’s a totally different kind of environment.

Obviously, the citizens of Chicago, New York, Atlanta, all those places, have running water and sewers and streets and stoplights. But I know for a fact that in some parts of town, they don’t get their street paved quite as often, they don’t get their snow plowed first. They don’t get quite as much stuff done, because they didn’t vote right in the last election. That’s exactly what will happen here.