Politics

Fresh Perspectives

Much of the time in government, change is brought about by those on the inside. Over the years, we have often told the story of career public servants who knew precisely how to transform troubled institutions once they got the chance.
by | November 2007

Much of the time in government, change is brought about by those on the inside. Over the years, we have often told the story of career public servants who knew precisely how to transform troubled institutions once they got the chance.

Sometimes, though, what an enterprise needs is something entirely new--someone with an unusual background, trying out a fresh approach, sparking creativity where it may have been lacking before. All nine of Governing's Public Officials of the Year for 2007 are, in different ways, exemplars of the "fresh perspective" model of public achievement.

Take Fabian Nunez, the speaker of the California Assembly. His colleagues made him speaker at age 37, after just one year in the legislature--and that was a priceless advantage. Nunez saw a chamber that had been riven by turmoil and unstable leadership for nearly a decade, and asked whether a newcomer might be able to run things a different way: through bipartisan consensus. The result has been a sustained period of legislative achievement that many thought had become impossible in California's tense political climate.

Bill White's story as mayor of Houston is similar. Coming out of a background in business rather than politics, and accustomed to building bridges rather than jousting for advantage, White created a coalition government that took in constituencies and interests across the city's political spectrum. This inclusive approach was the major reason why Houston dealt so successfully with upheaval brought by the 2005 hurricanes and the flood of new residents arriving in their wake.

Christine Gregoire wasn't an outsider when she became governor of Washington in 2005: She had previously served as both state attorney general and environmental protection chief. But she faced a situation she had never prepared for. Her cliffhanger election, disputed for months in the courts, was still not accepted by much of the Republican opposition. Nevertheless, she set right to work with a series of new initiatives, including a bold experiment in open management--allowing reporters and citizens into regular meetings where department heads frankly discuss the details of agency performance and how to improve it. After a year, even Republicans were conceding that Gregoire had brought state government a transparency it had never known before.

The experiences of three of this year's winners all testify to the value that an unorthodox appointment can sometimes have in generating the change that a government needs. Bill Leighty was a highly unusual choice to become Governor Mark Warner's chief of staff in Virginia in 2002. Neither a political operative nor a confidante of the new governor (unlike most chiefs of staff), Leighty was a career civil servant whose experience had been with the State Retirement System and the Department of Motor Vehicles. But with his detailed knowledge of the bureaucracy, Leighty was just the man to implement a series of comprehensive management reforms that paved the way for one of the most successful state administrations anywhere in America in recent years.

Bill Bott was, if anything, an even more unlikely nominee to reform Missouri's information technology operations. That's because he knew very little about technology. But he understood management, and how to centralize and bring efficiencies to the state's sprawling IT bureaucracy. His fresh perspective on the challenges of Missouri's IT program allowed him to implement a brand-new strategic plan and preside over a thoroughgoing consolidation that has saved the state millions in IT costs.

When Natwar Gandhi went to work for the District of Columbia in 1997, he knew as little about local government as Bott knew about computers. What Gandhi knew was auditing: He'd spent the better part of two decades with the U.S. Government Accountability Office, where one of his jobs was to audit the Internal Revenue Service. It didn't take him very long to determine that the D.C. government needed a whole new system of financial management. And that's what he gave it, to the point where the city began to balance its books year after year, steadily improved its bond rating and extricated itself from the federal fiscal supervision to which years of mismanagement had consigned it.

Sometimes, smart people can turn things upside down simply by looking at familiar problems in new ways. William Bratton has spent his entire adult life in police work, but he has always possessed the gift to see things others couldn't or wouldn't see. As police chief in New York City in the 1990s, he saw that his department wasn't preventing crime but merely responding to it. By turning to a prevention-based policing system, and holding subordinates accountable for crime statistics within their territory, he brought about a dramatic reduction in criminal offenses in a remarkably short time. In this decade, he is working a similar transformation in Los Angeles.

Kevin Coughlin wasn't a stranger to assisted-living systems when he took over the assisted-living program in Wisconsin in 2003--he'd spent seven years managing a private facility before going to work for the state. But like Bratton, he had a talent for asking the right questions. Why were all the state's assisted-living facilities being regulated the same way, when some clearly needed more attention and some could function with less? Coughlin's decision to rationalize the regulatory process led to myriad improvements across the state--and made Wisconsin a national model for meeting the growing demand for assisted living.

And sometimes, fresh perspectives are not so much a matter of conceiving new ideas as they are of reviving old ones. Debra Campbell grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with a strong sense of how important neighborhoods were in keeping a city vital. When she moved to Charlotte in 1988, she brought those sensibilities with her, to a city that had partially forgotten the importance of neighborhood and had to be reminded. Over 20 years in Charlotte, and especially in the last three years as planning director, Campbell has brought a new slant to urban planning simply by recalling the lessons she has carried with her all her life.

On the following pages are profiles of all nine of Governing's Public Officials of the Year, selected from nominations by readers, interviews with state and local government specialists and reporting by the Governing staff.

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman  |  Former columnist
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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