Governing magazine looks back at “Reinventing Government” – Tools that helped state government weather the recession

It’s been a quarter of a century, as Governing magazine reminds us, since Reinventing Government launched a fresh look at public administration and policy. And the look-back suggests it may be time for a refresh. The movement – they called it a movement – was a signature initiative of the Clinton-Gore era, with Al Gore leading the government’s National Performance Review – a ReGo initiative – with the guidance of Reinventing Government co-author David Osborne. (The other co-author was Ted Gaebler.) 

It launched a national effort, often led by state and local governments, to apply the discipline of performance review to public administration.

The magazine’s review of the process begins with a Washington state example.

In the fall of 2011, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire convened a meeting to review one of the proudest accomplishments of her two terms in office — the state’s Government Management Accountability and Performance system.

Gregoire’s GMAP program enjoyed widespread approval at the time. As Governing staff writer John Buntin reports,

In 2007, the Council of State Governments gave the state its first governance transformation award. By “measuring results and delivering practical, useful tools and solutions,” the council found, “the program is driving accountability and helping make Washington state government better.”

Washington had enjoyed recognition for leadership and innovation before. In 2005, the Locke administration’s Priorities of Government (POG) process was a finalist for the Innovations in American Government Award, a program of the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

The POG process received deserved credit for guiding state policymakers through the budget challenges of the early 2000s. A 2006 editorial in the Puget Sound Business Journal said, 

Perhaps the most important legacy of Gary Locke’s eight years as governor was the “Priorities of Government” budgeting approach he brought to a cash-strapped state during his last biennium as the state’s chief executive.

The editorial’s celebration of the POG was triggered by its absence in shaping the budget just a few years later.

It’s quite possible that this session’s absence of POG — which involved input from key stakeholders such as business and labor, as well as department heads in Olympia and gubernatorial policy folks — had something to do with the fact that lawmakers, with Gov. Christine Gregoire’s approval, passed a budget with a 12 percent increase in spending for the next biennium.

What’s striking in the Governing article and other accounts of the POG process (see, for example, this Washington Roundtable review) is the implicit recognition of the power of the process, which is really the power of discipline. The POG worked initially because the governor and the Legislature accepted as a starting principle the conviction that increasing taxes during the recession would be a bad idea. So, they agreed to set priorities within available revenues. 

And, as Osborne told Harvard Business Review in 1994, the ReGo effort had private sector appeal, the same appeal that a decade later drew business participation into the POG process.

Reinvention’s success is crucial to competitiveness…

Business can do two things. It can work with public organizations as partners and mentors. Companies have so much to contribute from years of fine-tuning best practices. GE, for example, goes in and does “workouts”: two- or three-day retreats with leaders and members of an organization. They look at the problems and discuss on the spot what’s needed to solve them. It’s a way to jump-start the process of change and signal to everybody that you’re serious about it.

Even more important, though, is the lobbying role. A lot of people inside government know what needs to be done, but they can’t get permission to do it. Outside forces need to lean on legislators to move bureaucratic change forward.

It’s difficult a quarter of a century on to recall that these processes inspired optimism and boosted public confidence in government. As Governing reports, that confidence has eroded. Osborne blames the decline on the political problems unrelated to ReGo efforts.

“Ted and I wanted to change the world,” Osborne says. He believes the crusade ultimately was a victim of bad luck. In the beginning, he insists, reinventing government did restore trust in the public sector. “If you look at the survey data,” he says, “in the ’90s, trust in government was rebuilding from a very low point. And a lot of basic services got better…”

The Governing story also reports on Peter Hutchinson’s role in developing the budget review process; Hutchinson led Locke’s initial POG review.

“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.”

As the state approaches another difficult budget session, the Governing story offers useful reminders of how policymakers can navigate challenging environments. We recommend it.