Notes From the Field

Notes From the Field

by / April 30, 1997
"I must create a system or
be enslaved by another man's."
-- William Blake, 1820.
Perhaps you live and work in "Uphill Battle, U.S.A." Its economic base has been declining for 15 years. A statewide property tax initiative put a lid on revenues. The state legislature passed a bill that shifted city revenues to the schools. The unions went four years without contracts. City management centralized every function it could and then slashed budgets.

Thus begins Banishing Bureaucracy: The Five Strategies for Reinventing Government by David Osborne and Peter Plastrik, a new release by Addison-Wesley. But far from what one might expect from its gloomy introduction, this book is a look at triumph over adversity, at an entrepreneurial spirit alive and well in American governments.

Five years ago, when Osborne and Ted Gaebler released Reinventing Government, its descriptions of government innovations and successes made quite a splash. It brought the workings of government to the public in a positive light -- unheard of in an age of media-driven fascination with the latest crime, scandal or failure.

The book was a best seller, Osborne and Gaebler were in demand as speakers and the Clinton administration was listening. Reinventing Government set the tone for Vice President Gore's National Performance Review, and began to change some basic ideas about government. At the time, explained Osborne, even the word "customer" was anathema to government. Governments served citizens -- restaurants served customers.

Now, five years later, the term "reinventing" has become a bit shopworn, but many of its concepts are part of the fabric of government. Indianapolis and many other cities now require city agencies to compete with the private sector for contracts. State staff no longer cringe when someone mentions their "customers" and, in fact, the federal government -- which Osborne considers a good barometer of how well reinventing is going -- now requires all agencies with public contact to survey their customers and assess effectiveness and service.

But the term "reinventing" has been harmed by its own success, said Osborne. It has become a clich