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Can a Book Club Improve Government?

Imagine spending your lunch break at a book club meeting. That’s what some Baltimore city employees do and it’s inspired changes throughout the city.

Members of the "Good Government Book Club" discuss <i>Change or Die</i> with Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (center).
Members of the "Good Government Book Club" discuss Change or Die with Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (center).
The Baltimore Bureau of the Budget and Management Research
Last month, we suggested six books for public managers and employees to check out this year. But what’s reading without discussing? In Baltimore, Andrew Kleine, the city's budget director, runs a book club that’s open to any of the city’s 14,000 employees.

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The “Good Government Book Club” meets every two to three months to discuss a variety of books that cover a wide range of topics including communication, efficiency, urban policy and citizen engagement. Participants are currently reading Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, which was the basis for a critically acclaimed movie starring Brad Pitt (more on how it relates to government later). The only rule is that the book must offer some value to public servants. The group, which has been meeting for about three years, is on its 11th book (a full list of books can be found here). When the group meets, members discuss each book in the context of Baltimore and how the tools or lessons can be put toward challenges the city is facing.

I talked to Kleine to learn a little more about how the city is using a book club to improve government. His responses are edited for clarity and length.

How do you choose books to appeal to such a broad audience?

It’s a trick to find books that are accessible. We’re not going to read really technical books, just because that would bore people. We’re trying to find more popular titles that still have a lot to offer. We’ve read a book by a former head of the IRS (Many Unhappy Returns), which was almost a memoir, but there are a lot of lessons in it. The book If We Can Put a Man on the Moon is a series of success stories and it’s interesting to read and to say, “here’s what government can do if we really put our mind to it and have good leadership.”

How do you promote the club?

We use email blasts that go out to all employees announcing the book, and I’ve even printed up handbills about upcoming books that I take to meetings and hand out. I think it’s gotten people’s attention, but it’s a matter of finding the time to do it. I tell people they don’t have to read the whole book to come to the club: Just bring their lunch, I tell them, and they'll probably learn something and have something to contribute. It’s not easy to find the time, but the books are on their radar even if they don’t come.

How is the book club improving city government?

Some things have been inspired by the club. For example, we’re implementing lean government in the city. The first book we read in the club was Extreme Government Makeover, which is about lean government. We recently had our first couple of lean events and they’ve been wildly successful.

Before we read Citizenville, we had been doing things to engage citizens, but this gave us ideas on how to step up our game. We added crowdsourcing to our online budget tool and I feel like that was inspired by that book.

Something that I’m trying to convince people to move toward in our strategic planning is ideas from the book Trying Hard is Not Good Enough, which focuses on how to “turn the curve.” The author says the goal is to set long-term targets for improving performance and figure out where the status quo is taking you. Imagine a line graph showing this data, and assuming you are not on track to achieve your target, you need to "turn the curve". The book gives concrete advice and tools on how you can turn that curve and achieve better results for citizens.

The Ten Faces of Innovation sparked a discussion about how the configuration of physical workspace can really make a difference in how teams function. One of the people who came to that club was from our general services department, and she said she was incorporating some of the ideas from the book into some workspace design that she was doing.

One manager said “I’ve been managing for 10 years and this is the closest thing I’ve ever had to management training.” Another employee, who was pretty jaded, came to a club meeting and said “This is a revelation for me. I’m so inspired to take these ideas back to my office and implement them.” That’s what it’s all about -- giving people ideas that they can implement at any level.

I wish I could say that the club has transformed the culture, but that wouldn’t be accurate because we’re in a city with 14,000 employees and only 10 to 20 are participating. But I feel like that’s actually a good size for a book discussion. And even if it’s making small improvements in offices around city government or in people’s lives, then it’s more than worthwhile.

What types of employees participate?

We have everyone from agency heads to mid-level managers, down to front-line employees. We get a real mix of participants, which I’m very happy about. I try to choose books that aren’t too long because I realize that not everyone is a public-administration geek like me and that everyone only has so much time for reading these kinds of books. I think it probably does tend to attract those who are a little more wonky, more optimistic about the ability to improve government. But at each meeting, it’s a changing cast of characters—different people are interested in different selections.

How do book club participants apply what they’ve learned?

Sometimes applying what we’ve learned happens at the individual level. Some of these books (like the one the mayor chose, Change or Die) are really about psychology and the ways people can change and how we can bring other people along toward change. It showed me things I didn’t know about making change in my own life. Another one that’s personal for me: We read a book about how to communicate effectively. I have a tendency to want to throw in everything but the kitchen sink in terms of explaining whether it’s a policy decision or a recommendation, and the book had a great idea on how to simplify your message.

Your current selection is Moneyball. What does that have to do with government?

It’s all about using data in unique ways to drive innovation. Right now, the mayor is working with an organization called Results for America, and they’ve been promoting this "Moneyball for Government" idea to use data and evidence to drive investment decisions. We recently did a Twitter town hall around that and so it made sense to add this book.


Interested in reading any of the books mentioned?

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (Affiliate)

Many Unhappy Returns (Affiliate)

If We Can Put a Man on the Moon (Affiliate)

Citizenville (Affiliate)

Trying Hard is Not Good Enough (Affiliate)

The Ten Faces of Innovation (Affiliate)

Change or Die (Affiliate)

This post contains affiliate links, which means we receive payment if you make a purchase using these links.

Heather Kerrigan is a GOVERNING contributor. She pens the monthly Public Workforce column and contributes to the print magazine.
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