Notes From the Field

Notes From the Field

by / January 31, 1997
Laboratories of Democracy
Sometime this spring David Osborne and co-author Peter Plastrik will release Banishing Bureaucracy, the sequel to the 1992 bestseller Reinventing Government.

Independent of how the new title fares, some of Osborne's most relevant views on the dynamics of modern governance are outlined in Laboratories of Democracy, a book published almost 10 years ago that garnered comparatively little attention.

Written in the late 1980s, the book's title is taken from a 1932 dissenting opinion written by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis that says in part, "It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country."

On point in Osborne's Laboratories of Democracy was his assessment that the center of innovation and reform in government had shifted in the 1970s and '80s from Washington D.C., to state capitals around the nation. This was a big change from the 1960s when, as the author notes, states were perceived to be the enemies of progress as personified by the image of Gov. George Wallace blocking the schoolhouse door.

It was the "fallout" from the new economy -- driven by the explosive growth of high technology and global competition -- that put pressure on the states to innovate and change much more quickly than Washington was capable of doing.

This shift of power, accelerating into the 1990s with welfare reform and block grants, brings to center stage the trend Osborne noted a decade ago.

As 1997 gets under way, Justice Brandeis' vision of "laboratories of democracy" has never been more relevant. States must be free to pragmatically experiment with programs, to "pilot" what works and what doesn't. In this wired age of "mass customization" it is naive to expect a one-size-fits-all solution developed in Washington to work uniformly throughout the United States. The future lies not in centralized government but in networked government with decision and action closer to the citizen.

For the rest of this century we can expect a great deal of experimentation coming from states as they pick up the "heavy lifting" in the management and delivery of human and other government services. The challenge now rests on the states so they in turn don't stifle innovation from cities, counties and even local civic organizations. As Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson noted in his excellent new book Power to the People, we don't want to "replace one large Washington government with fifty expanded state governments."

The best hope to solve the problems facing the country is to allow state and local agencies to innovate and bring the energy and talents of their executives and staff to bear on these problems. While information technology has been the catalyst, it can also help analyze data and disseminate results. And in a time of experimentation under political and economic duress, accurate assessment of results will be essential.