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Local Governments' Enduring Reinvention Imperative

It's been 20 years since "Reinventing Government" was published. The book's lessons continue to resonate among innovative governments across the country.

At the International City/County Management Association's recent annual conference, we celebrated the 20-year anniversary of David Osborne's and Ted Gaebler's 1993 bestseller, Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is Transforming the Public Sector, describing it as "an inspiration to many progressive managers who believed that governments need to be more mission-driven, customer-focused and results-oriented."

It would be hard to overestimate the impact the book has had on government at all levels -- an impact not unlike that of the reformers who transformed our cities, towns and counties more than a century ago when they introduced the concept of professional management.

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During the past two decades, local governments have become increasingly engaged in the process of reinvention. Legions of local-government leaders -- driven by changes in community demographics, polarized politics, increasingly powerful technologies, a growing schism between those who have and those who do not, and an increasingly challenging economic landscape -- have come to focus on truly new and different approaches to service delivery and problem solving. Just a few examples:

• Hampton, Va., whose city manager was honored last year by the White House with an "Innovation Champion of Change" award, given to government leaders who make their organizations more transparent, provide new venues for citizens to become involved, and foster new methods for citizens and the public, private and nonprofit sectors to work together.

• Olathe, Kan., which as one of the fastest-growing communities in the United States successfully transformed itself from a sleepy suburban city into an economic powerhouse that today attracts a host of high-visibility businesses, such as Honeywell, ALDI, Garmin and Farmers Insurance Group.

• Decatur, Ga., which engaged more than 2,000 residents in the development of its 2010 strategic plan through a new web portal that served as a gateway for involving them in the planning process.

• Durham, N.C., which in 2012 was one of 33 cities worldwide to receive a "Smarter Cities Challenge" grant from IBM to develop a coordinated strategy for addressing disenfranchised youth and positioning them to become contributing members of the community by age 25.

• Fort Collins, Colo., which took the No. 1 spot in Money magazine's 2006 "Best Places to Live" rankings and today can boast of its "award-winning schools, a globally-focused university, a thriving arts scene, eclectic shops and restaurants, hundreds of miles of walking and biking paths, and a plethora of outdoor activities."

• Palo Alto, Calif., which launched one of the country's most ambitious cloud-based community open-data sites, providing new channels for communication and participation and fostering transparency and trust in government.

• Needham, Mass., previously little more than a bedroom community for Boston, whose adoption of the town-manager form of government in 2005 resulted in the town finding ways to bring about a number of impressive capital-improvement projects that have revitalized the community.

What these and many other reinvention-minded local governments share is a set of principles that are necessary to sustain innovation over time:

Consistency and perseverance: In Jim Collins' famous flywheel analogy, leaders at first struggle to push an organization to change. If the motivation and perseverance are strong enough, however, the flywheel eventually will turn, and its momentum enables the organization to break free of mediocrity and move toward transformative change.

Stable leadership: Successful reinvention requires critical experience continuity. A change in political leadership within a community that employs a professional manager or administrator, for example, does not have to mean wholesale changes in top management.

Earned trust: Local government is consistently rated most favorably by American citizens among the three levels of government. This high level of confidence enables leaders to generate support for local initiatives and new ways of meeting challenges.

A focus on important issues that matter: Success at reinvention and innovation requires an organization to develop what Collins calls a "piercing clarity" around the best way to produce long-term results and then exercising the relentless discipline to reject opportunities that fall outside the community's priorities.

High levels of citizen/resident engagement: The ability to engage every segment of the community when defining service priorities and determining how revenues will be raised to pay for them is essential to gaining support for new initiatives.

Tolerance for risk: Previously I've written about how during tough times superior organizations use "creative destruction" to abandon traditional ways of doing things in exchange for innovation. For reinvention to take place, we must challenge assumptions and develop a tolerance for risk-taking.

A sustainable culture of excellence: For an organization to reinvent itself continually, it must possess a combination of transparency, constituent engagement, performance and accountability. These attributes foster an organizational climate that encourages new ways of thinking.

Effecting substantive change within a government organization is a major challenge. Reinvention can happen only when the governmental enterprise has the discipline required to abandon the status quo and focus on achieving momentum toward positive results. That is the enduring lesson of Reinventing Government.

Past executive director of the International City/County Management Association
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