Jonathan Walters is the Executive Editor of GOVERNING. He has been covering state and local public policy and administration for more than 30 years.E-mail: Jowaz22@gmail.com
It’s perennial. A new governor is elected on promises of making government more efficient -- eliminating waste and rethinking programs. After inauguration, the new administration convenes a group of well-respected citizens -- often from the business world -- to scour state government for duplication, obsolescence and inefficiency. This group, or commission, is charged with creating a blueprint for setting government on the road to high performance.
The rhetoric is grand. So are the promises as numerous rookie governors - -28 newly elected this year - -try to wrestle their bureaucracies into smooth-running machines that also, by the way, save the general fund a bundle of taxpayer dollars.
It’s a safe bet that a dozen or so such commissions will be in action this year. Those commissions will be asked to review everything from services states should deliver to the way government should be structured -- including taking a hard look at the authorities, commissions, boards and agencies that have accreted over the decades. The work will refocus state government on its core responsibilities and suggest ways to restructure government so that it meets those responsibilities in the most efficient manner possible.
What’s questionable is whether these blue ribbon commissions will -- or can -- make a difference. Recent efforts show mixed results: Some reports achieve almost immediate paper-shredder-ready status, while others actually gain traction. Why are some helpful and others an expensive waste of time?
Bill Leighty, former chief of staff to Virginia Govs. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, and a veteran of two state government reinvention commissions, is one of the nation’s more accomplished, self-taught scholars on the subject. He notes that Virginia’s first reinvention commission, which was convened in 1916, was followed by 13 more, the latest under current Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. That’s an average of one every 6.5 years.
Practiced or not, these exercises have always had a tough time when it comes to implementation. "It's like trying to coax 100 feudal kingdoms into seeking nation-state status," Leighty says. As he sees it, every department is a feudal kingdom, and no nation-state ever came about because all these kingdoms wanted to join together voluntarily. "It's invariably the result of a strong outside force," he says. That strong outside force is the commission.
The modern-day model for government performance study commissions may have been set by the Texas Performance Review (TPR). Launched in 1991 by then-Texas Comptroller John Sharp and the late, legendary Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, the review was a top-to-bottom scrub of state government for efficiency and effectiveness. It was inspired by a looming state budget crisis and a primal fear that some in the Legislature might finally and credibly push for a state income tax to solve the state’s fiscal problems. The TPR unleashed 100 auditors on Texas government to find savings, identify cuts and look for potential alternative revenue streams.
According to a study by the University of Texas’ Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) School of Public Affairs, the TPR had some positive -- although clearly mixed -- results. Auditors identified nearly 975 ways the state could save $5 billion. Those ideas included consolidating 12 human services departments into one and expanding experiments with privatized prisons. In the end, the state enacted about two-thirds of the TPR’s recommendations, adding up to $4.2 billion, $2 billion of which came from tax and fee increases.
If Texas’ attempt at using a top-to-bottom government review to effect change was credible, then California’s recent effort to reinvent government was a real stinker. The 2004 California Performance Review pretty much represents a master list of don'ts when creating a reinvention commission and trying to peddle its wares.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger started the process by saying he was going to "blow up the boxes," says Mark Baldassare, president of the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. "Naturally, the people in the boxes are all going to be very nervous." Instead of bringing all the parties together to begin a long, hard effort to actually restructure, it had an antagonistic quality from the start. And that, Baldassare notes, made it hard to implement.
Nor did it help that the Performance Review’s final report was more than 2,500 pages and contained 1,200-plus recommendations. In other words, there was something in it for everyone not to like -- and for everyone to resist. According to the LBJ School analysis, the Schwarzenegger version of War and Peace ended up mostly being about war. It picked fights with unions, the Legislature, dozens of boards and commissions -- along with their members, staffs and constituents -- and just about every other special interest native to the Golden State. And it simultaneously sought to beef up executive oversight in a lot more of California government, a notion that the California Legislature didn't care for at all.
So it wasn’t much of a surprise when then-Senate President John Burton characterized the governor’s game plan for California’s salvation as "dead on arrival," which it certainly proved to be. This, in its way, was tragic, given the amount of sincere and hard work that went into producing the report, not to mention that it included some sensible -- and even vitally necessary -- recommendations on how to get some control over the behemoth that California’s state government had become. Among other things, the report suggested tackling the state’s notoriously bureaucratic personnel system and eliminating 88 state boards and commissions.
How might Schwarzenegger have done it differently? Kevin Bacon, one of the professors who managed the LBJ government transformation research project, offers a pretty succinct list on what a commission should be:
After that, it’s all about execution, including two absolutely necessary ingredients for success. First, there must be a staff and plans in place to implement recommendations. Second, there must be unstinting executive follow-up.
"Most commissions' greatest downfall is they don't allocate the right level of resources to getting things done," says Leighty. He admits that it sounds contradictory since many of these commissions are about saving money. But the staff and resources must be in place to follow up on commission recommendations.
Meanwhile, governors who launch reinvention efforts must signal that they mean business, and they need to signal it constantly. "Every time the governor walks into a room and one of his cabinet secretaries is there," Leighty says, "he should walk right up to them and ask, 'How are you doing on recommendation X?'"
A more recent and well regarded example of how to set up and run an effective commission was in Georgia, where Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue’s Commission for a New Georgia modeled many of the Bacon/Leighty keys to success, and it included a wide variety of players: business people, bipartisan lawmakers, government insiders, members of various advocacy groups and informed citizens. Instead of immediately tackling proposals that had built-in or dug-in opposition, the commission pursued issues that everyone could agree on, such as improving state contracting procedures and more efficient disposal of surplus government property.
Observers think another characteristic made the Georgia commission successful: It set itself up as a transparent, standing, consulting group that made recommendations for improving processes and reorganizing functions as it found things to fix.
Still, there will always be some unavoidable tension in setting up and operating one of these commissions. Often the impetus for a commission is that a state is in deep and immediate fiscal trouble. Yet many commissions recommend significant structural reform, which takes time. "You're redoing the machinery of government," says Bacon. "The problem is, you need savings right now, like a payday loan. As a result, real reform oftentimes gets pushed aside due to the immediate demand for savings."
The most immediate and interesting test of how that point of tension plays out is in New York, where new Gov. Andrew Cuomo launched not one, but three commissions: One to tackle Medicaid; another mandates; and the third, called the Spending and Government Efficiency (SAGE) Commission, to pore over state government for duplication, inefficiency and obsolescence. According to Cuomo’s pre-election agenda, "The SAGE Commission will be directed by business leaders with experience in restructuring complex organizations, and its charge will be simple: Reduce the number of agencies, authorities, commissions and the like by 20 percent." While the charge might be simple, execution will not.
With a $10 billion deficit this year, the Empire State will be the latest -- and easily one of the highest stake -- proving grounds for whether the magic of reinvention commissions is real or just rhetorical. Not since the California Performance Review debacle has a state restructuring commission been handed such a complicated and starkly difficult job. The government in Albany has been famously described as perennially "dysfunctional," with a fractious Legislature that seems to love battling governors just for recreation's sake. Public employee unions, meanwhile, are sure to find nothing to like in any restructuring plan that involves cutting state jobs. They’re already spoiling for fights over Cuomo’s proposed state employee pay freeze and statewide property tax cap.
That doesn’t mean that anyone should give up on New York state’s ability to reform. There is hope. The key will be commitment, says William Eggers, author of numerous government transformation books. "People know they can outlast these things if they’re just one-offs," he says. "To be successful, a commission needs to be serious -- and serious over the long haul."
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