October 30, 2013 By Robert J. O'Neill Jr.
At the International City/County Management Association's recent annual conference, we celebrated the 20-year anniversary of David Osborne's and Ted Gaebler's 1993 bestseller, Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is Transforming the Public Sector, describing it as "an inspiration to many progressive managers who believed that governments need to be more mission-driven, customer-focused and results-oriented."
It would be hard to overestimate the impact the book has had on government at all levels -- an impact not unlike that of the reformers who transformed our cities, towns and counties more than a century ago when they introduced the concept of professional management.
During the past two decades, local governments have become increasingly engaged in the process of reinvention. Legions of local-government leaders -- driven by changes in community demographics, polarized politics, increasingly powerful technologies, a growing schism between those who have and those who do not, and an increasingly challenging economic landscape -- have come to focus on truly new and different approaches to service delivery and problem solving. Just a few examples:
What these and many other reinvention-minded local governments share is a set of principles that are necessary to sustain innovation over time:
Consistency and perseverance: In Jim Collins' famous flywheel analogy, leaders at first struggle to push an organization to change. If the motivation and perseverance are strong enough, however, the flywheel eventually will turn, and its momentum enables the organization to break free of mediocrity and move toward transformative change.
Stable leadership: Successful reinvention requires critical experience continuity. A change in political leadership within a community that employs a professional manager or administrator, for example, does not have to mean wholesale changes in top management.
Earned trust: Local government is consistently rated most favorably by American citizens among the three levels of government. This high level of confidence enables leaders to generate support for local initiatives and new ways of meeting challenges.
A focus on important issues that matter: Success at reinvention and innovation requires an organization to develop what Collins calls a "piercing clarity" around the best way to produce long-term results and then exercising the relentless discipline to reject opportunities that fall outside the community's priorities.
High levels of citizen/resident engagement: The ability to engage every segment of the community when defining service priorities and determining how revenues will be raised to pay for them is essential to gaining support for new initiatives.
Tolerance for risk: Previously I've written about how during tough times superior organizations use "creative destruction" to abandon traditional ways of doing things in exchange for innovation. For reinvention to take place, we must challenge assumptions and develop a tolerance for risk-taking.
A sustainable culture of excellence: For an organization to reinvent itself continually, it must possess a combination of transparency, constituent engagement, performance and accountability. These attributes foster an organizational climate that encourages new ways of thinking.
Effecting substantive change within a government organization is a major challenge. Reinvention can happen only when the governmental enterprise has the discipline required to abandon the status quo and focus on achieving momentum toward positive results. That is the enduring lesson of Reinventing Government.
Reprint courtesy of Governing.