December is a curious month in public service. Stuck between two major holidays and filled with distractions and truncated workweeks, it can be difficult to get things done. A healthy dose of tryptophan from turkey leftovers helps ease the hurry-up-and-wait anxiety of preparing for the coming legislative season, which is compounded this year by a transition that, in many states, introduces new players, majorities and agendas.
Perhaps this is an excellent month to pause and reflect on where we are and how to move forward. To that end, this issue of Governing comes with a companion playbook of 36 ideas for addressing big issues ranging from budget and health care to operations and leadership. They were drawn from two days of discussions with seasoned public officials at Governing’s Summit on the Cost of Government in September.
The summit also was the genesis of the Governing Panel, a community of leading practitioners in state and local government who we’ve asked to help us think through the challenges and opportunities of governing in these times. A straw poll of this cross section of public officials reveals a pragmatic mix of guarded optimism and determination come what may.
The most striking results are those that appear at first glance contradictory, but are encouraging in a backhanded way. Three-quarters of respondents agreed that state and local governments largely are on their own to solve their problems from here on out. At the same time, 93 percent agreed that the problems governments face are not just manageable -- they can be solved. An equal proportion agreed that elected leaders need to embrace far bolder changes to meet the challenges ahead, including Bill Leighty, principal at the Performance Leadership Group, who exclaimed, “Leaders need to lead instead of manage.”
The challenges are well known, many of which were used as weapons in campaign ads throughout the last few months. Jobs and wider economic concerns lead most lists. And then there’s health care. Only slightly more than half (54 percent) of respondents agreed that state governments have the leverage needed to bend the health-care cost curve. That’s particularly pronounced since the election, which left West Virginia Sen.-elect and Gov. Joe Manchin as a lone voice in the freshman class in Congress for fixing federal health-care legislation instead of repealing it. For their part, majority House Republicans have vowed to abolish, replace, dismantle or otherwise reverse all or part of what had been the Obama administration’s signature achievement.
Howard Schussler, assistant director for Lane County, Ore., Public Works, had a prescription of his own. “I believe it’s essential for elected officials to become leaders and dial back the rhetoric related to the health-care dialog,” he said. “It’s essential to begin exploring models that may be working, consider the desired outcomes and identify the critical cost drivers.”
That would be a welcome development for one respondent who complained that for far too long, “elected officials, especially at the federal level, have presented the public with false choices and ignored problems out of political expediency.”
Still, another official agreed with Manchin’s approach of fixing the shortcomings in the federal legislation, warning that, “Having the states try to implement the current [law] is going to be a waste of money.” However, the federal money chase continues.
Under a new federal initiative reminiscent of Race to the Top, states have until Dec. 22 to enter the Early Innovators program for funds to model the technology needed to set up health insurance exchanges required by 2014 under the current federal health-care reforms. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services hasn’t disclosed the amount of money available under the initiative, but has said the funds will flow by mid-February to five states “that are willing and able to lead the race to develop IT systems.”
But there’s a question for public officials about the merits of betting on the outcome in this kind of situation: Is it a strategic opportunity for innovation or a fool’s errand when scarce resources could be better used elsewhere?