Better Government

Patriotism and the Power of Public Spaces

When Joseph P. Riley Jr. first ran for mayor of Charleston, S.C., in 1975, he wanted to heal racial tensions in a deeply Southern city where the Civil War began. Visiting older European cities, he found his signature strategy. He saw people of all socioeconomic classes enjoying these cities’ fine public spaces. Riley became convinced that when the public realm -- streets, squares and parks -- is built well, the bonds of citizenship are reinforced. People know that everyone owns it.

Riley, who last month concluded four decades as Charleston’s mayor, calls himself a disciple of the urbanist William Whyte, who first came to prominence as the author of The Organization Man in 1956. While working with the New York City Planning Commission, Whyte pioneered the use of direct observation to study pedestrian behavior, work that led to two influential books: The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces in 1980 and 1988’s City: Rediscovering the Center. That last book, which I read shortly after it came out, pulses with energy and is still as vibrant and relevant today as when it was first released. READ MORE

A Better Way to Attack Inequality Than Redistributing Wealth

Many government leaders are justifiably concerned about our country’s huge and widening gaps in wealth and income and are looking for ways to reduce economic inequality and improve social equity. What surprises me, however, is how often, on both the left and the right sides of the political spectrum, the discussion turns to the idea of redistribution -- taxing the rich to give to the poor by increasing social welfare payments.

In this scenario, as The Washington Post’s Robert J. Samuelson wrote a few weeks ago, “redistribution becomes an engine of social justice.” He cites a recent Brookings Institution study showing that increasing the top federal individual income tax rate from the current 39.6 percent to 50 percent would raise about $100 billion in tax revenue annually and that distributing that money to the poorest fifth of Americans would amount to an average of $2,650 per household. READ MORE

A Homework Assignment for the People Running Public Universities

The sharp decline in state funding for higher education in recent years may have brought tuition increases and rising student debt, but it also has been accompanied by a reexamination of what the role of our publicly funded colleges and universities should be. Not everybody is happy about that, but this is a conversation we need to have.

Some governors and legislators have been rightly criticized for what seems like a short-sighted and anti-intellectual assault on higher education, but I think a significant portion of the blame for this new and critical scrutiny of public higher education falls on the institutions’ faculty and administrations. To many elected officials and members of the public, they seem arrogant and out of touch. READ MORE

What Costco Can Teach the Public Sector

If you’re looking for ways to turn a governmental entity into a high-performance organization, you’d do well to pay attention to people like Mike Salvino and Zeynep Ton. Salvino told the audience at a recent Governing event that when he took over as the group chief executive of Accenture Operations, he had an 87-page strategic plan for how to grow and manage that business. At the end of his first year, nothing had changed, so he scrapped the strategic plan and began to focus instead on the people in the organization. That emphasis is captured on a one-page card Salvino hands out that’s covered with phrases like “recharge your batteries” and “DO NOT miss events that mean something to you personally due to work.”

Salvino said his employee-centric approach produced frequent conflicts with what he referred to as the “HR and finance Gestapo” but that it also produced significant improvements in performance. Today Accenture Operations employs 93,000 people and has more than $6 billion in annual revenue. READ MORE

The Real Purpose of Government

Government in a democracy is essentially a conservative institution. It is responsible for creating and sustaining markets, enforcing contracts, protecting private property, and producing systems of education and infrastructure that allow commerce to function efficiently.

The current conventional wisdom that liberals are pro-government and conservatives are anti- is frequently traced to President Ronald Reagan’s often-invoked notion that government is the problem, not the solution. But when you read Reagan’s first inaugural address, delivered in 1981 in the middle of a crushing recession, what he actually said was this: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” This was not a blanket condemnation of government, but a reaction to a specific situation in which the federal government seemed particularly ineffective. Reagan went on to say that “it’s not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work.” READ MORE