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Post-Bureaucratic Government

This Article is By: JIM CHRISINGER    On  May. - 31, 2008


Post-Bureaucratic Government

Today's government systems were built to cure the ills of the 19th century's spoils system. But what was a good idea a hundred years ago is not what we need now.

Jim Chrisinger

It's a cruel joke. Americans want their governments to become more responsive, more efficient and more effective. They want to know that they receive value for their tax dollar. But they expect better government performance without untangling the bureaucratic web that impedes performance. It's not fair. It's silly.

It's like asking government workers to run a hundred-meter dash with their shoelaces tied together. Deliver a semi-load coast-to-coast and on-time in a Model T. Draft a memo using only half the letters on the keyboard.

Every election cycle drives performance expectations higher. Candidates promise more with less. Escalating entitlement costs pressure everything else. People's experiences as private-sector consumers also raise expectations: increased choice, new products and services, and better customer service.

So they wonder why government can't do more to improve productivity and offer better service. They should be tiring of "waste, fraud, and abuse" pabulum. They would be surprised to learn that much of government is rigid, hierarchical, non-responsive and rule-bound because that's precisely the way it was designed to be. The people working in government today are trapped in a dysfunctional system; it's not their fault.

Our current government paradigm was built to cure the ills of the 19th century's spoils system, to end Boss Tweed-style corruption. Bureaucracy was not built for performance. Ironically, a hundred years ago the word "bureaucracy" enjoyed a positive connotation because it answered the governmental crisis of its day. Even more ironically today, much of the bureaucratic solution then was borrowed from private-sector best practices. But what was a good idea then is not what we need now.

Now we want and expect more from government. Fighting corruption is no longer enough. We want — and reasonably expect — government to give us the most value for the tax dollars we're willing to invest.

So we've seen a spate of performance initiatives over the last 20 years: performance measures, citizen input, process improvement, performance contracting, e-government, publicly reporting results, and now the "stat" phenomenon. Good things all.

But it's crazy — and cruel to people who work in government — to expect these initiatives to work by themselves, to demand high performance from a system fundamentally designed to do something else. Performance bureaucracy is an oxymoron.

There is a better way. We actually know how to redesign government for performance. It's not easy. It's not cheap. But it can be done. A few examples:

• Offer government agencies a more performance-oriented basic "deal." Instead of the typical bureaucratic deal, departments can sign up to improve measurable results for the people they serve. In return, they enjoy increased authority and flexibility. They can, in one example, take immediate action on personnel and general services matters without having to seek and wait for approvals. They can waive rules that impede performance. The state of Iowa implemented this idea and won an Innovations in American Government Award in 2005. Results improved, bureaucracy diminished and the sky has not fallen.

• Reverse the presumption for the myriad thousands of current rules. Create a "bureaucracy-busting panel" to hear challenges to rules that made sense at one time but now bog down people who do want government to perform. Once a rule is challenged, the rule's keepers have to defend it against a presumption that it goes away or is modified. The panel, consisting of performance-committed individuals representing different viewpoints, is authorized to take action.

• Grant government's customers — internal and external — more choice in services and service providers. Many jurisdictions are finding this lever of change to be especially powerful in the world of human services.

• Give government leaders and managers the flexibility, tools and resources needed to promote, attract and retain the talent required to make results-oriented, post-bureaucratic government succeed. In his book "Good to Great," Jim Collins rightly emphasizes the prerequisite of "getting the right people on the bus and the right people in the right seats."

Change will not come easily, for many reasons. Entrenched interests and individuals benefiting from the status quo won't let go without a fight. A hundred years ago, bureaucracy arrived as progressive reform; now it's inertial bulk, the immovable object. Media and political "gotcha" stifles innovation. So courageous leaders choosing performance over bureaucracy need guides and allies. They need encouragement and support, because they must also invest incredible energy and substantial resources.

Want performance? Then design, invest, and implement for performance. If you're willing to settle for bureaucracy, quit complaining about the results. But please, no cruel jokes.

Jim Chrisinger, now a consultant with the Public Strategies Group, served for nearly three decades in local, state and federal government. From 1999 to 2007, he led Iowa's performance-accountability innovations. He speaks widely and teaches strategic public management in Iowa State University's public-administration master's-degree program.