Government Can Innovate

The Thomas Jefferson Institute's "Innovations in Government Conference" showed how.

On May 4th the Thomas Jefferson Institute hosted the Innovations in Government Conference at Markel International Headquarters in Glen Allen. The conference was put together in partnership with the Office of the Governor, Cost Cutting Caucus, the Virginia Association of Counties and the Virginia Muncipal League. National experts and practitioners on government reform, performance based budgeting and competitive sourcing spent the day with close to 130 government officials talking about how to make the Commonwealth work more efficiently and effectively.

More than half of the 130 participants coming from various state agencies; city and county officials filled out the rest.

Del. Chris Saxman, R-Staunton, the chair of the Cost Cutting Caucus, kicked off the event comparing how his family business operates differently from how the state operates-highlighting several key differences in personnel and acquisition. He fielded several questions about how to change incentives and encourage more state employee input, often referring to legislation he has sponsored in the past few years to encourage and reward innovative employees.

Scott Pattison, the Executive Director of the National Association of State Budget Officers and former state budget director, discussed the importance and value of performance-based budgeting. He suggested that agencies keep it simple and that they not get mired in details and process. Indeed, he cautioned about setting up a process with a series of check-offs that improperly puts the focus on the check-offs, not on the results.

Pattison also discussed the “priorities of government” model of budgeting employed by the State of Washington, and most recently in South Carolina. The lesson was simple-“there is never enough [money]; whether you’re a conservative Republican or a liberal Democrat to fund everything we may want to… We must focus our resources on our priorities.”

Former Fairfax County Supervisor Stuart Mendelsohn talked about the many lessons he learned while service in office. Most importantly was his call to work with everyone, especially employees, when trying to enact reform. For starters, the employees are often some of the best innovators (agreeing with Del. Saxman), “making great sound bites” doesn’t bring change or make your governments work better.

Mendelsohn suggested that crisis presented a great opportunity to change, but cautioned against quick fixes. He did concede that serious reform is a long and arduous process that requires commitment over time.

Perhaps one of the more enlightening discussions came from Deloitte Consulting’s Bill Eggers who discussed his new book Governing by Network. Eggers described the trend where governments are relying more and more on outside contractors and partners to provide services. However, Eggers said that governments don’t always know how to manage these relationships. Eggers argued that not only must government learn how to manage, but they needed to embrace the relationships and see the positives-the results and outcomes that can be achieved in a fruitful partnership. If not, he fears that results will be lackluster and then mounting pressure could result in returning the old model of service delivery simply because it’s familiar.

The Governors’ Chief of Staff Bill Leighty provided some concluding remarks, which included lavish praise for Del. Saxman’s efforts and leadership of the Cost Cutting Caucus. He noted the Caucus’ success, its willingness to work with the governor and his commitment to make Virginia a better place. Almost in direct response to some of the presentations that day, Leigthy discussed the move toward a services- based budget that will be unveiled with the Governor’s next budget.

Leighty noted that we live in a “consumer-driven government… that our governments [at every level] are too responsive… It only takes a few letters to get a law or a regulation passed.” And he mentioned that 30 percent to 40 percent of government expenditures are to “keep track” of the other 60 percent of the spending. To highlight this, Leighty provided a chilling story of “needing” to conduct a print study before buying a new printer for VDOT. The study cost the state $40,000; the printer was only $12,000! Noting this outrage, Leighty called for lowering the cost of compliance.

The most interesting comment from the state and county employees in attendance was that state laws and regulations often stood in the way of innovation and efficiency.

The ball is now in the practitioners’ court. Ideas were exchanged, processes described and implementation widely encouraged. The challenge now is to make positive change happen. Not yet known is whether those in positions of authority will take the necessary steps and support employees who have the courage and the creativity to step forward with ideas.

Geoffrey Segal is director of privatization and government reform at Reason Foundation.