Reinventing government 22 years on: Osborne and Gaebler still have useful advice

Osborne and Gaebler - Reinventing GovernmentBack in the early and mid 1990sĀ David Osborne and Ted Gaebler’s book, Reinventing Government, had its turn in the trendy policy wonk sun. Just as theories about nudging behaviour are now the in thing, back them their approach to a different way of doing government attracted interest from across the political spectrum and spurred a variety of implementations in democracies around the world.

One way of reading the book is as a right-wing approach to government, as hinted at in its subtitle, “How the entrepreneurial spirit is transforming the public sector”. However, it isn’t simply a right-wing call for smaller government and more private providers as the book isn’t so much about reducing the scope of what outcomes the public sector tries to achieve, but rather is about making the public sector rather better at achieving those outcomes.

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A simple yet classic example from the book is about the fire service, where they argue that the way to improve it is often to put more emphasis on prevention. Shift resources from dealing with emergencies to preventing fires in the first place and you can have a safer society, at lower cost and with a smaller fire-fighting workforce required in the end. It’s only if you take the left-wing self-caricature extreme position of judging commitment to public services by the number of people employed in them that a smaller fire-fighting service but fewer fires, fewer deaths and lower costs to the public sector is a problem.

Hence Osborne and Gabler were popular across the political spectrum, especially with President Bill Clinton. As I’m on the current Liberal Democrat policy working group at public services, I therefore dusted off my copy over the new year to see how well, or not, the principles of Reinventing Government have aged.

There is still plenty of value in them:

  1. Catalytic government: steering rather than rowing (i.e. focus on achieving the objectives rather than thinking the state has to do it all directly itself)
  2. Community-owned government: empowering rather than serving (now often called co-production)
  3. Competitive government: injecting competition into service delivery (the most controversial section)
  4. Mission driven government: transforming rule-driven organisations (which touches on the territory covered in the UK by people such as John Seddon and starts with a quote from General Patton: “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what you want to achieve and they will surprise you with their ingenuity”)
  5. Results-oriented government: funding outcomes, not inputs (a trend in British government recently, although as the payment-by-results trials have shown, it’s not an easy matter to turn this concept into successful policy)
  6. Customer-driven government: meeting the needs of the customer, not the bureaucracy (there’s a clue in the name about who public services should be there for – to serve the public)
  7. Enterprising government: earning rather than spending (a large part of this section is about the merits of charging more fees for providing services and earning money from public assets by using them to compete with the private sector; no surprise then that this is also the section that has had the least impact on policymakers)
  8. Anticipatory government: prevention rather than cure
  9. Decentralized government: from hierarchy to participation and teamwork
  10. Market-oriented government: leveraging change through the marketĀ (including using pricing and taxes rather than direct bans and specifications set through regulations – an important factor for environmental policy and hence also not simply a left versus right debate)

I wouldn’t pick all ten as my own starting place for improving public services, but it’s certainly still a useful thought-provoking list that captures most of the main issues that need to considered – regardless of whether, for example, in the end you think that the environment is best served via detailed regulations about products or via ensuring that product prices include their full environmental impact.

It is also a list that fits well with trying to deal with the lessons from Beethoven string quartets for modern public services.

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