Gaining Ground

Thinking Beyond the Rhetoric of Reinvention

When TPR was born of necessity four years ago, little was occurring around the nation in the way of examining government or measuring its performance. Most such efforts were confined to the private sector. Now, the very phrase "reinventing government" has reached the status of cliche, and performance reviews have been conducted in more than a dozen states as well as the federal government. Local governments, whose innovative experiments, many argue, started the movement in the first place, continue to explore ways to "reinvent" themselves.

In Texas, the reinventing government movement has nudged state government to a critical turning point. We're at a crossroads today between the old and the new, between the traditional approach of business-as-usual and a radical restructuring of the business of government.

Yet, the average Texan is reluctant to believe things are improving. Crime is down, but few feel safer. The economy is growing, but few who live paycheck to paycheck see much difference in their personal incomes. Test scores are up, but questions about the quality of public schooling persist. Some small business folks and even big-time investors, caught up in the speculative frenzy of a decade ago, remain deep in debt. The state bureaucracy has been shaken, but Texans are still skeptical, still overburdened, still unsatisfied that government is giving them the level of customer service they deserve.

Taxpayers are in a foul frame of mind, deeply cynical and in no mood to believe that some new piece of legislation will improve their lives.

In this era of disbelief, customer service isn't an easy concept to sell. Professional government watchers, and certainly most ordinary Texans, long ago lost whatever enthusiasm they might have had for public institutions. The politics of disillusion run so deep that whole generations are loath to imagine that there once was a time when state government wasn't a colorless captive of self-dealing bureaucrats and narrow special interests. These days, it seems, taxpayers are increasingly the victims of bureaucratic blackmail.

Part of the problem may lie in a festering confusion over how well government lives up to its various tasks and whether it should be performing some of those tasks at all. There's a common presumption that the bureaucracy is rife with waste and duplication, that specific state programs are riddled with inefficiency or worse. But many state programs are in fact well managed. The real questions might be: Do we need certain programs at all? Have they outlived their usefulness?

Too often, the bureaucracy behaves as if it were primarily concerned with its own needs, rather than the needs of the citizens who pay the bills and depend on its services in return. State government is staffed by talented, well-meaning people. But in too many instances, they're hamstrung by illogical procedures and pulled in unproductive directions by fragmented responsibilities.

What's more, the "reinventing government" movement's emphasis on better customer service has caused a bit of a backlash. There are those who argue that Texans aren't state government's customers at all, but its owners. These critics take offense at the customer-service approach. Making state bureaucracy more customer oriented, they say, only leads to the loudest getting served first and best, while the voices of others are ignored. Customer service policies threaten to shift power from public interest groups to private profiteers, they complain. The brash vocabulary of government reform -- streamlining, downsizing, re-engineering, outsourcing and other new-fangled words -- is seen as a simple disguise for an old-fashioned effort to transfer accountability from the public's representatives to anonymous bureaucrats, undermining the democratic process.

One overriding reality remains, however: Texans expect to be treated as customers. They want quick consideration when dealing with state government, just as they do when shopping at the local market. Whether they regard themselves as owners or customers, Texans deserve to get their money's worth and to determine the cost and quality of the services they pay for in a kind of free-market version of public policy.

An underlying premise of Gaining Ground is that state government has four sometimes distinct, sometimes overlapping sets of customers. To deliver the kind of high-quality, low-cost service to which each has a right means that state government must reform its programs and procedures in four different directions simultaneously:

Responsiveness. State government's customers are the people who receive its services and pay for them. As such, their needs should take priority over the needs of those who provide the services.

Partnerships. State government isn't alone in providing services. It has intermediate partners, including federal and local governments, community organizations and private sector groups. All play important roles in the seamless delivery of services, and, as partners, their needs must also be met.

Accountability. State government and its programs are created by the Legislature, the governor and the courts. These entities oversee state agencies and their performance and, as elected representatives of the public at large, deserve accountability, too.

Efficiency. In the end, Texas taxpayers foot the bills for state government and are both its owners and its customers. They should be able to count on efficiency and effectiveness at all times.

Each of the proposals in Gaining Ground fits into at least one of these four goals, although many of our recommendations fulfill more than one and sometimes all four. It's possible, for example, to improve state government's responsiveness to its customers while saving money, or to work in concert with local agencies without smothering accountability under layers of bureaucracy. Government efficiency and improved performance will almost always save taxpayers money, if only as a byproduct, and many of our proposals are designed to do just that. All of them, however, will achieve at least one of these four customer-service goals.

Gaining Ground has another purpose, too: beginning to reverse the general lack of confidence among Texans that state government has the will to reform itself. The possibility of positive change in the public process may seem particularly remote in these times of distrust and disdain, the ability of public institutions to make a meaningful difference in people's lives especially distant and doubtful.

Yet, the strength of our system is its power to remedy its own faults and address the daily concerns of taxpayers and customers. Gaining Ground, while presenting no panaceas, proposes some critical building blocks toward those goals.