Reinventing Government

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Entrepreneurby Rob White

In a recent article on Government Technology’s website, Ted Gaebler (City Manager of Rancho Cordova, CA) was highlighted for his groundbreaking work on how local government can be “transformed” and how to “unleash innovation” in the public sector.

Recent articles about Gaebler’s retirement from his post in Rancho Cordova in early 2014 reminded me that some of the most impactful public policy ideas in the last 20 plus years came from the 1992 best-seller, Reinventing Government – How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is Transforming the Public Sector, co-authored by Gaebler and David Osborne. The govtech.com article states that “Gaebler and Osborne argued that governments needed to rethink industrial-era bureaucracies and develop new techniques suited to the Information Age.” And with over six decades of work experience, Gaebler has had plenty of time to develop his ideas and put them to practice.

In the article, Gaebler discusses that the term he coined of “entrepreneurial government” describes “ownership and presumably owners are more careful with things than employees. They care about the bottom line, and they care about retaining the customer. 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.”

“When you go to work for government with your brand-new MBA degree, 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.”

On the idea of risk taking, Gaebler states, “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. They’re not paid to take risks and the system does not typically reward risk or failure, so what’s the point?”

“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. I 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. I need to lend them what I call my “cloak of protection”… 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.”

When it comes to the role of technology, Gaebler states that “the quickest way to reinvent governments is through technology. 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.” He further states. “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.”

On the idea of investing in people, Gaebler makes it very clear that there is a need to “invest in new ideas, new skills and new collaborative agreements during times of crisis… It is all a matter of choices… Some people think they can’t change these costs, but governments have to evolve. 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.”

These ideas and practices are informative to our situation in Davis as we are facing a significant budget shortfall of over $15 million over the next 5 years. We have gone through several rounds of cost-cutting and expense reduction, and the mid-year budget update that will be presented to City Council next week will bring even greater clarity to how those shortfalls will affect current service levels.

One very significant way that the staff can impact that budgetary bottom line is to be increasingly more creative in our approach to how we deliver the services. Technology has radically changed our lives and new innovations on how services can be delivered can be modeled from other cities and government agencies. These best practices are sometimes very different from our current delivery models. But just like the cell phone and tablet computers that many of us have adopted as a routine part of our lives, these new service delivery systems can be radically different yet overtime become a part of the fabric of our daily lives that we could never conceive living without.

And like the bank tellers that we couldn’t conceive living without just 2 decades ago, we have now mostly transformed our way of banking, first to ATMs and then to online methods. Service mechanisms and ways of doing the public’s business need to be reassessed and staff are diligently working to identify ways to easily provide access information and more simplistic methods of interacting with city hall for routine business.

Staff are also constantly assessing critical needs versus the things ‘we have always done.’ We have many community partners, and it is valuable to make sure that we are vigilant in the public sector not to duplicate services that are being delivered more cost effectively by these partners.

A great example is small business assistance. Helping a new business grow and succeed through effective advisement is a core activity conducted through a variety of community partners, including the Davis Chamber, Davis Roots, Small Business Development Center (SBDC), SCORE, the Sacramento Metro Chamber, SARTA, and US EDA Commercial Services (to name a few). The City should not try to duplicate these services as it takes away from the core mission of city staff and it is redundant with existing services.

Staff are also working diligently to identify new models that will create long-term revenue. Though expense reduction and deployment of new technologies is an important part of the budget equation, we also need to make sure we identify and secure new revenue sources.

One revenue source that will be discussed over the coming months is the technology centers. Staff has engaged with the landowners of the two peripheral innovation park sites identified by the Innovation Park Task Force and subsequently approved by City Council in November 2012 as the likely locations for creating an innovation park.

Each of these sites is about 200 acres and staff have met with representatives for each of these locations. During these meetings, staff have made it clear that any potential innovation park would include the need for a creative, long-term annual revenue source that helps to balance the City’s budget. This revenue generation mechanism might be enacted through a variety of ways yet to be negotiated, but it becomes a central discussion point as the community discusses potential approval of land use changes to make an innovation park possible.

So as the Sacramento Region says goodbye to one of local government’s most influential public policy innovators, Davis can use his concepts as a best practices guidebook on ways for us to shape our future service delivery methods, identify cost savings measure through technology deployment, and create new revenue sources through creative partnerships.

As always, I welcome your comments and ideas. Email me at rwhite@cityofdavis.org.

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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