For some, the very notion of innovation in government is an anachronism, where government is the stifling force of innovation, and all that is truly innovative comes from the private sector.
A recent interview in Government Technology a publication geared toward “solutions for state and local government,” with Rancho Cordova City Manager Ted Gaebler poses another possibility. In 1992 Mr. Gaebler wrote the book, Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit Is Transforming the Public Sector. Written with co-author David Osborne, it “influenced a generation of public policy experts and managers. Gaebler and Osborne argued that governments needed to rethink industrial-era bureaucracies and develop new techniques suited to the Information Age.”
Entrepreneurial government, according to Mr. Gaebler, “connotes ownership and presumably owners are more careful with things than employees.” By that he means that public employees would care about the bottom line and retaining the customer.
He says, “If our employees think like owners, they will be more careful with resources; they will shut off the lights when they leave and, most important, they will think about ways to make money beyond just raising taxes.”
The problem with government is that when you go to work for it, “you usually are asked to leave half your brain at the door because all the government ever asks you to do is to focus on saving money. Entrepreneurial government gets our employees thinking about how they can raise money – so reusing existing resources fits into that, also not doing nonsense that doesn’t pay for itself.”
Ted Gaebler argues that one of the keys to a successful government is creating an environment where it is okay for employees to take risks.
“Public employees are very fearful of doing something out of the norm that might cost them or their colleague their job – or worse, cost an elected official their job,” he said. “They’re not paid to take risks and the system does not typically reward risk or failure, so what’s the point?”
But he argued, “Yet, the nation’s 23 million public employees do creative things at their churches on weekends or at their yoga class. They chair committees, they speak in front of people and they raise funds. But we never tap into this wonderful wholeness of who they are.”
So he thought, “Why don’t I create an organization where people can bring those outside talents inside?”
“But if people are going to be creative, they can’t come into an environment that penalizes mavericks,” Mr. Gaebler warned. “I need to lend them what I call my ‘cloak of protection’ from the City Council or the press if they do something innovative and screw up. I try to find early examples of actually protecting somebody so that they know that I have the capability to do that and the mindset to do that. Somebody who has been around a long time like me has a very long cloak.”
A matrix team is a group of city employees from across departments, functions and job titles, that are brought together in order to complete a task.
These teams are assigned to work on issues that they care about. They are typically chaired by those with a passion for a cause, but who are not a department head.
“That has proven to be very successful. It usually results in a better decision – although not always – but it certainly results in a decision that’s understood by the people who will be affected by it. And it’s not imposed from the top,” Mr. Gaebler said.
Ted Gaebler told GovTech that they have a number of ways to identify people’s talents in order to better utilize them.
“I spend a lot of time personally investing in people – asking questions about their background and schooling,” he said. “We also do a lot of work with DiSC Management style assessments. We have done 20 of them, and so we all sort of know what each other’s personality or management style is.”
He added, “Another thing we do is bring in people from the academic community or from the media and let them ask questions. We’ve had visitors from Australia, China and Japan. We do a lot of reading of outside things, and we send a lot of people to conferences.”
In the era of tight budgets, however, many communities have cut down on travel and training. Recently, the city of Davis sent a huge team, much of it funded from private sector sources, to Washington DC to lobby governmental leaders, which also put its team on the map.
Mr. Gaebler argued, “The dumbest thing that governments do by far is cut back on investments in people and their training and skill building – these are the things that cause new ideas to seep in. You should invest in new ideas, new skills and new collaborative agreements during times of crisis.”
He said that they have had a budget surplus in every year since they started. They currently have $28 million in the bank, but that’s about $10 million down from the peak year, so they have had some layoffs and cutbacks.
He said, “. But we didn’t have anything that destroyed morale. We gave the people we laid off [enough] severance pay that made them go away happy.”
About these tough decisions Mr. Gaebler said, “Now I have money that I can invest in anything that comes along, and we haven’t missed a beat on training. And we still get very high approval ratings in our biannual public opinion survey.”
“It is all a matter of choices,” he said.
Still, like most communities, they had to cut back the number of cops, and change their pension system.
“Some people think they can’t change these costs, but governments have to evolve,” he said. “I think that [our annual budget of] $47 million – with the possible exemption of the rental on City Hall – is all up for grabs and it is all optional.”
Ted Gaebler argued that “the quickest way to reinvent governments is through technology.”
He added, “It is the least resisted way, and it is among the fastest ways to break down patterns of doing things because people accept it. Technology is the fastest way for me to achieve my objective, which is helping governments get better. So we have tried to embrace it.”
“I am not sure we’re at the leading edge of technology – I am pretty sure that we are not – but we are interested in where the leading edge is,” he said. “We’re using virtual desktops and most of us have iPads. There are only four people here who get hard copies of the City Council agenda. We no longer have the big packets that go out and agenda deadlines and running to Kinko’s. We are past all that stuff.”
He concluded, “All the council members have VPN access if they choose. Many of us can work at home and do. Our code enforcement folks use wireless iPads to do their stuff. And the cops, of course, all have computers in their cars. So the meat-and-potatoes productivity tools are there.”
As all of this is happening right down the road, the question is, from our perspective, can the city of Davis follow suit?
—David M. Greenwald reporting