Accountability was the theme at Governing's Managing Performance conference.
Today's leaders are wrestling with a big question: How can they shape next-generation government to fit the changing needs of their communities? At Governing's Managing Performance 2009 conference, held in Atlanta this fall, participants from more than 30 states--as well as dozens of cities and counties--explored the current initiatives that will drive change for the future of the public sector.
After years of mounting fiscal pressures, the recession has forced public officials to reexamine their resources, reevaluate their strengths and question what services they can--and should--provide citizens. While different communities are making different choices, two constants emerge: the imperative of delivering results and the importance of accountability.
When Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue took office in 2003, he pledged to make Georgia the best-managed state in the nation. With that goal in mind, Perdue and his team have worked to bring about dramatic improvements in state government.
Keynoting the conference, Perdue explained that his drive rests on a simple idea. "What is the definition of 'government'? It's doing things on a daily basis to make people's lives better."
"Ultimately," Perdue went on to say, "when it gets down to what the customer wants, they just want their problems solved." That's why Georgia has adopted a "full-service, Wal-Mart-type retail mentality," he said, focused on steadily improving customer service. Delivering better service doesn't just make citizens happy, Perdue said. It also energizes state employees.
The culture of government is changing in other states as well. Essential to Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley's StateStat effort to measure and improve state agency and department performance, according to O'Malley's chief of staff Matthew Gallagher, is raising public expectations.
The governor points out performance deficiencies not only to rank-and-file public employees but also to the public at large, creating pressure inside and outside of government for correcting those problems. An example: A backlog of 25,000 unprocessed DNA samples meant hundreds of crimes went unsolved because of state inaction. It's easy to convince citizens that in a case such as that, improved performance would make them safer.
It's not just the public whose expectations need to be adjusted, said Lisa Webb Sharpe, director of the Michigan Department of Management and Budget. "To change the culture of government, change has to be systemic. It has to reach the front line, the people who really operate government, who understand the business, who get the input from the public directly."
And the legislature needs to be engaged as well, which requires a hard look at how information is shared between lawmakers and the executive branch. Diana Urban, a Connecticut legislator who has led the effort in her state toward greater accountability, said that for years, Connecticut agencies were sending the legislature 185-page reports detailing how money was being spent.
"And how many legislators do you think read that?" asked Urban. So she worked to change the system; today, Connecticut agencies deliver three-page reports outlining how their performance ties in with results-based accountability goals.
Some models of next-generation government--in areas as diverse as social services and technology management--differ significantly from the way things typically work today. Georgia Human Services Commissioner B.J. Walker envisioned a new social service system in which clients actively manage their own benefits, while caseworkers are held accountable for bringing about sustained improvement in their clients' lives. Patrick Moore, executive director of the Georgia Technology Authority, described the state's decision to outsource its IT infrastructure. As a result, GTA was transformed from an agency that delivered services to an agency that manages services delivered by a contractor.
There's a significant shift underway in another critical area: the relationship of states, cities and counties to the federal government. Although experts agree that the injection of stimulus funds won't have any lasting fiscal impact on states, the federal relationship has improved dramatically, said David Quam, director of federal relations for the National Governors Association. "I'm hopeful that the cooperation that's come from working together to create [the reporting system for using stimulus funds] is actually a model for building a relationship that, instead of being coercive, is actually cooperative," said Quam. He also sees the reporting and transparency required by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act as enhancing the trend toward accountability.
A particular area of concern for government is the need to attract and retain talent. Many are working hard at improving their image as attractive places to work. And it's not just about recruitment. When employees are happy with their workplace, retention increases, customer satisfaction increases, performance results increase, and things such as sick leave go down.
So how can cities, counties and states make sure they're attractive places to work? For Toby Futrell, the former city manager of Austin, Texas, it's "the three Fs: focus, fun and far-out." That is, a focus on employee satisfaction, a sense of fun and recognition of high performance, and an environment that fosters and nurtures innovation. In Georgia, structural changes to the state's personnel system have improved the situation, said Steve Stevenson, its current commissioner. In recent years, the state has put in place a pay-for-performance plan, shifted to a hybrid retirement program combining defined benefits and defined contributions, and established a single point of entry for state job applicants.