Some 25 years ago, Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas picked up a book. So, too, did Senator Al Gore of Tennessee. Their choice? Reinventing Government, the US bestseller by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler. In the early 1990s, this was the book for anyone interested in how government can be made less bureaucratic and more effective. The difference, however, was that after their 1992 electoral victory they were in a position to transfer the ideas from page to practice. Which is exactly what happened.
For David Osborne, it was a heady time. After all, few – if any – authors get to see their ideas picked up and backed en masse, let alone by an incoming president and vice president. He also had the opportunity to influence their implementation by serving as a senior advisor to Vice President Gore. His remit was to help run his “reinventing government task force”, the National Performance Review (NPR). He was also the chief author of the September 1993 NPR report, which set out the Clinton Administration’s reinvention agenda.
So, 25 years on, what have been the fruits of these labours? Has government been reinvented or is it still a work in progress? It’s the latter, rather than the former.
“There has been a large impact, but it has been very uneven from place to place,” says Osborne, who is keen to stress that this was never going to be an overnight fix. “The last time we did this – at least in the United States – was when the industrial era began, and it took about 60 years for the new approach (which can be summarised by the word ‘bureaucracy’) to become the norm. So I’ve always thought it would take about 60 years this time, which means we are heading towards the two-thirds point.”
Putting government under the microscope
Since his time working with the vice president, Osborne has been anything but idle. Today, he can be found at Progressive Policy Institute, directing its Reinventing America’s Schools project. He has also authored several other books and worked as a consultant to counties, school districts, states, federal agencies, and governments around the world.
Osborne’s advice on how to transform government organisations by introducing market forces and becoming more “entrepreneurial” has been accepted by prime ministers and presidents, but he says that momentum has been greatest at the state and local level. “At the federal level, we made a lot of progress in the 1990s, but we have probably lost ground since then,” he admits.
“President Clinton and Vice President Gore made this a priority, with the vice president leading an eight-year effort to modernise the federal bureaucracy. That crusade made a lot of progress – such as empowering employees, creating awareness of who the customer was, creating customer service standards, introducing performance measurement throughout the federal government, and so on. But the Bush administration went backwards in many of these areas – though they did place a lot of emphasis on measuring results.”
He goes on to say that the Obama administration also failed to make reinvention a major priority, instead deploying a small team to the Office of Management and Budget to focus on strategic and performance management. The underlying issue, he believes, was the “rampant” partisanship that began to cast a long shadow from Capitol Hill to the White House during the mid-1990s.
“Everything became so political, and politics mitigates against reinvention,” he says. “This is because changing institutions requires some level of trust, and when the two political parties have complete distrust for each other they don’t want to let go of anything. They keep rules in place to stop the other party doing anything, so you just get more rules and more central control.”
Interestingly, he says that as a result of this partisan divide, citizens now view elected politicians with similar levels of distrust. But when the book came out, the target of their ire was the government “bureaucracy”. At the time, they had to wait in long lines to receive terrible customer service. Now, though, “substantial” progress has been made on those fronts, while politicians have fallen back. The blame for this turn of events lies with the Republicans, he believes.
“They were willing to get power by any means,” he argues. “And then when President Obama got elected, the entire Republican Party decided to reject everything he stood for and everything he wanted to do. So, the citizens have watched this partisan standoff for so long that most of their distrust is now focused on the elected politicians, which is different to how it was 25 years ago.”
The future of “reinvention”
In their book, Osborne and Gaebler came up with 10 key principles for how to make governments “entrepreneurial”. These included empowering communities to solve their own problems, funding outcomes rather than inputs, and giving customers of public services more choice. If he were to write a sequel – don’t hold your breath, he has no plans to – Osborne nonetheless says that these ideas have stood the test of time.
“I don’t think the principles would be different today, but the practices are far more advanced,” he says. “Back then, we were roundly criticised for using the word ‘customer’ in the public sector, but now it’s just common sense. Advances in technology have also had profound implications. They allow customers to do many transactions at home that they used to have to stand in line for and, more importantly, they allow governments to measure performance much more easily. It’s not easy in the public sector, but it can be done, and when you have the data you can make wiser, more rational decisions about where to spend the money.”
Osborne clearly remains passionate about this agenda, but he is equally fired up by his determination to advance the debate surrounding education reform – the subject of his latest book, Reinventing America’s Schools.
“It’s about how school districts can contract with independent operators, give them five-year performance contracts, make them compete with each other, encourage them to create different types of learning models, and give them a lot of autonomy to figure out how to succeed,” he explains. “I wrote the book because I think we are getting close to a tipping point, where we can have a lot more cities do this. That’s how I have spent the last four years and how I am going to spend the next three years – pushing this idea.”
It is clear, though, that government performance will continue to influence much of his research and agenda. For example, he speaks passionately about how policymakers could and should ensure that their organisations fully embrace the art of innovation.
“What reinvention is about is changing the dynamics and incentives of the public sector, so that innovation stops being an uphill battle and starts being the norm,” he says. “This means we need to empower people to innovate, and we have to give them incentives to innovate. In the past, the incentives were to keep your head down and not make any waves. But we need a public sector where the incentive is to innovate, to get better and cheaper every year, with everyone focused on that goal.”
Policy labs can help, he adds, but innovation needs to be bigger. “We need to change the DNA of the bureaucracy and create more entrepreneurial, innovative organisations,” he continues. “That’s when lab-designed innovations will take root and be used. It’s much easier to just create an innovation lab or delivery unit, but it won’t get you nearly as far as seeking to change the incentives, power structure, and mindset of the whole organisation.”
For Osborne, this means that the road to reinvention continues to stretch into the distance – much like his own work commitments and plans for the future. And for that, governments and citizens alike stand squarely in his debt.
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