Public Services Management: Why the city manager won't write about sex: Ted Gaebler's driving passion is reinventing government from the ground up. Liza Donaldson reports

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
THE government management guru Ted Gaebler gives an amusing account of him and his wife discussing a title for his book Reinventing Government.

At one point this readable volume, hailed by the Washington Post as 'a landmark in the debate on the future of public policy' and now poised to become a world best-seller, might have been entitled 'Eleven proven methodologies for changing bureaucratic systems without them necessarily upsetting the budget process or anything else.'

His wife vetoed that as boring.

When he suggested, at the other extreme, 'Sex and the City Manager', (he was thrice a city manager) his wife looked at him in the way only wives can do and said: 'What in the world makes you think that would be less boring?'

Mr Gaebler's self-deprecating wit and genuine modesty fit neatly with this medium-tall, middle-aged, bespectacled and genial American. His book may not have any sex in it, but it does harbour a burning, missionary passion for 'making the government we have work better' . He said it had been compared with the Tom Peters best-seller In Search of Excellence and he hoped it had crystallised 'some truths about government' acting as 'a spur and catalyst' for better government.

He explained: 'Our book gives hope. It is very honouring of the public official. We don't bash bureaucrats. That is why they are paying attention to it . . . But we do bash the systems. The systems are stupid.'

Having toiled in those bureaucratic systems for 25 years as a career manager in US local government, he added: 'The outside world does not know how stupid they are. It is a little known secret that people in government suffer more than the people outside.'

As he told an international conference in London last week, one of the worst things is the budget mechanism under which 'if you do not spend it you do not keep it. It goes back to some general fund, or you do not get as much next year, or you get yelled at for asking for too much last time'. The net result is that while citizens may suffer, those in the most pain are 'good people - altruistic, intelligent, careful public servants who have chosen to do that work, trapped in terrible systems'.

His book, written with David Osborne, a journalist, aims to liberate public servants and the community at large from outdated, lumbering, inefficient bureaucracies forged in another era. To inspire them it lists 10 key principles drawn from examples of outstanding, practical American governments. The characteristics of these new-style governments, which the authors see as 'our future', include: those with an entrepreneurial flair, promoting competition between service providers; those that empower citizens; those that focus on results, not input; those that are mission-driven and not hidebound by rules; those that are customer-orientated; those that prevent problems and are pro-active, earning money as well as spending it; and decentralised governments that prefer market mechanisms to bureaucratic ones, and systems that are catalytic - energising all sectors, public private and voluntary, into action to 'solve their community's problems'.

The book also features as one of its star examples a Bill Clinton. At the time he was interviewed for the book, Mr Clinton was the Governor of Arkansas and was pioneering ways to involve the community in government. Now, as president-elect, it is likely he will be taking up many of the ideas in the book. (He had breakfast two weeks ago with Mr Osborne, the co-author).

Mr Gaebler also revealed that he will be presenting documents to the president-elect setting out aspects of the revolution that is under way in British government, notably the Citizen's Charter. He was he said 'astonished at the parallels' between the charter and the 10 principles of good governance in his book. He said eight or nine of the charter's main aims were shared and added that there was 'a good chance that Bill Clinton will follow the model of what is happening here in Britain - in that there is a top-down focus, through the Citizen's Charter, on having change in government'.

The admiration flowing across the Atlantic is mutual. The book's depiction of grassroots 'bottom-up' change has fans in William Waldegrave, minister of the Citizen's Charter unit, Brian Hilton, its director, Michael Clarke, chief executive of the Local Government Management Board, and several council chief executives. Government experts point out, however, that our system is far more centralised than the American one and that the Citizen's Charter views the citizen narrowly as customer only, unlike the Americans' broader vision of citizen as civic person and a member of the community.

Mr Gaebler is confident that the ideas in his book could translate here easily. But he is worried a little by the 'healthy scepticism' of government that he sees in Britain, which he believes must be overcome. The 'them and us' attitude is an example of the writing on the wall that President George Bush failed to read, he says, adding that Mr Bush lost the election because he did not articulate a vision of how to change government in response to public disgust with it. Bill Clinton did.

Mr Gaebler argues: 'Government is an instrument of the people', and, in the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln, created 'by the people, for the people' - so he is mystified by the 'them and us' division. ' How did we ever get to the position where it (government) has a life of its own? I deeply, sincerely do not think it should have a life of its own. We should be very carefully touching base with what the citizens want us to do, so they should be supportive of us.'

Mr Gaebler believes in re-educating the 25 per cent of citizens who are the opinion shapers, so they can act as outside backers of change in government. The other 75 per cent, he reckons, are too busy getting married, pregnant or getting on with their lives to bother with systems of government. Most are also wrongly informed about government.

He would like, in sum, to see a 'new compact with citizens' that acknowledges that they want 'a better bang for their buck'. Citizens in the US and Britain have voted for governments doing more with less tax money. The recession has further eroded tax income, sharpening the issues and providing a golden opportunity for change. But where Mr Gaebler and Mr Osborne pull the rabbit out of the hat is that they reject the 'either/or' choice of raising taxes or cutting services.

They opt for what Mr Gaebler sees as the most important tenet of the book: government as catalyst, facilitator, broker for 100 per cent of the community's resources, not just the 12 per cent or so over which it has jurisdiction. This means less delivering of services and a return to an 'extraordinarily important role in determining policy . . . and offering competition'.

Government must become more like an entrepreneurial business, although 'we don't want our government run like a business' because 'our policy decisions are much too important to be made overnight, behind closed doors, by one person, solely for profit'. But by using 'public entrepreneurship' (a phrase Mr Gaebler claims to have invented) bureaucrats should deliver better government - in the sense that the French economist JB Say defined the entrepreneur as one who 'shifts economic resources out of lower yield into an area of higher productivity and greater yield'.

The quid pro quo is that the community at large must do its bit too, relearning its responsibilities, shaking off the atrophy that sends it rushing to government to solve its problems. Churches, he suggested, must resume the care of the homeless they relinquished with the creation of the welfare state, and the press must acknowledge its responsibility for promoting a positive 'climate for change in government' - in the same way as it welcomes a new useful product or a medical breakthrough.

As the voluntary sector and the private sector form a new synergy with the reinvented government, he said, the community at large will be reclaiming ground it temporarily lost to an overweening, bureaucratic, employee-fat and ultimately doomed style of government.

(Photograph omitted)