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Adding Value to Government: Ted Gaebler Reflects on Long Career

Ted Gaebler, current city manager of Rancho Cordova, Calif., looks back at his career and looks forward to some time off.

by / September 26, 2013
Rancho Cordova, Calif., City Manager Ted Gaebler has announced that he plans to retire, most likely by January 2014. Jessica Mulholland/e.Republic

Ted Gaebler, author of Revinventing Government and current city manager of Rancho Cordova, Calif., is retiring soon – probably in January. Some have taken to calling him the “rock star of public management,” as the book he co-authored reached No. 6 on The New York Times Best Sellers List and he speaks to audiences around the country, drawing on his experience serving governments in Nevada, California, Ohio, Maryland and Pennsylvania. He also advised governments at consulting firm ACS and his own consulting firm in San Rafael, Calif. Elvis was a rock star, Gaebler said, and he’s just proud of his own achievements in government.

“I plan to not work. I’ve been working for 60 years – since I was 12. I’m about to be 72, so I figure it’s time to quit working,” he said. He plans to travel with his wife while they’re still both healthy and able, he said, and go through the 42 boxes in the garage that haven’t been opened in years.

“Only a crazy person would imagine at the beginning of their career that they could have an impact on an industry – or somebody amazingly arrogant,” he said. “And I wasn’t that arrogant, but very quickly I learned that people inside organizations were not very happy and people outside organizations were not very happy.” Gaebler explained that he realized the things that were making people unhappy were man-made and therefore mutable, so he set out to change those things any time he could.

“So it became fun to be masquerading as a manager, but all the time knowing that I was in fact a change agent in whatever agency I was in and ultimately became a change agent for the industry,” he said, adding that he is proud of his record of fiscally responsible management wherever he went, always ending the fiscal year with a surplus.

On Sept. 22, Gaebler spoke at the 99th annual International City/County Management Association conference in Boston, highlighting some of his own past achievements, while promoting his thesis about government management. “My thesis always is A) governments need to change, B) we managers are in a good position to do that, and C) the quickest way to do that is by focusing on the culture of the employees and getting them to be a huge energy source through positive change that also benefits them and the community.”

Many times, Gaebler said, managers are hired because they are skilled in economic development, engineering or technology, but those people may not be capable of creating a corporate or community culture, and that is absolutely essential.

As he leaves Rancho Cordova, Gaebler’s replacement will need to continue the work he started and be aware of the importance of culture, he said. “The community, the council and the staff have all become very comfortable with the culture that we have built – that is, employee-friendly, citizen-friendly, nonbureaucratic and innovative,” he said.

Reinventing Government, which he co-authored with David Osborne, has impacted governments around the world, Gaebler said. Since the book was published in 1992, many people have told him how it helped their careers and changed their governments, he said. “Oftentimes [the book] was helpful because it told the public that governments could be better than they were, easily, and how to do that. And it told elected officials that they could get re-elected if they would support easy government change,” he said. In a past interview with Government Technology, Gaebler pointed to technology as the easiest and fastest way to “reinvent government.”

Originally Gaebler studied pre-law, but 50 years ago he made a turn into the public sector, and he’s glad he did. “I decided the public sector needed some help and that ultimately I ended up having the skills needed to turn this industry into better than it is,” he said. “Every jurisdiction I’ve left has been highly respected and … I’ve been able to draw attention to the fact that governments can be good and not just disrespected as we oftentimes are by Rush Limbaugh and other critics of government. I’m very proud of adding value to my industry.”

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Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.

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