One Book’s Legacy

September 2016
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Publisher
Former mayor of Kansas City, Mo.

In this issue’s cover story, John Buntin takes a retrospective look at the impact of the 1992 book Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit Is Transforming the Public Sector. For public-sector leaders, Buntin writes, Ted Gaebler and David Osborne’s book “was a revelation.” Count me among them. I read the book shortly after it was published, and when I came across this passage in the first few pages I was hooked: “First, we believe deeply in government. We do not look at government as a necessary evil. … Government is the mechanism we use to make communal decisions.”

Gaebler and Osborne go on to list some of the huge challenges we faced -- including drug addiction, crime and global warming -- and then ask, “How will we solve these problems? By acting collectively. How do we act collectively? Through government.” I cannot tell you how revolutionary that bold statement felt after the Vietnam War, Watergate and the presidency of Ronald Reagan, in which government was characterized as the problem and not the solution to anything.

Buntin quotes Robert J. O’Neill Jr., the executive director of the International City/County Management Association, as describing Reinventing Government as “the most influential book of the past 25 years” for the public sector. Indeed, the book constituted a turning point in the way we think about government. Gaebler and Osborne focused on what they called the “entrepreneurial spirit,” but I think the most powerful idea they captured was of government as a force for good. The question was not whether government should be bigger or smaller, but how it could be more efficient, effective and responsive. Once you buy into that concept, ideas like measuring performance, focusing on outcomes and viewing citizens as customers all make sense.

Near the end of his article, Buntin writes, “The fact that reinventing government never sparked a revolution puzzles Gaebler to this day.” I think the revolution did happen and that it’s still happening. I see a direct line between the book and the current wide acceptance of evidence-based policymaking and administration.

This past June, the Summit on Government Performance and Innovation, co-hosted by Governing and Living Cities, was attended by some 400 committed public officials -- people who share a conviction that government can be an innovative, high-performing, positive force. That may have seemed like a revolutionary idea in 1992, but today it’s a reality that’s reflected in every issue of Governing.