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How New Governors Can Renew Public Trust

New governors are being greeted by a flood of red ink and a public that doesn't trust the state governments they run.

A record number of new governors take office this month at a time when several budgets are in the red and trust in government is scraping bottom. In fact, an October Pew Center on the States survey found that less than 20 percent of respondents in Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois and New York trusted their state governments.

Andrew Cuomo, New York's new governor, captured the sentiment in his inaugural address: "People all across the state, when you mention state government, they are literally shaking their heads... The state faces a budget deficit and a competence deficit and an integrity deficit and a trust deficit."

The issue of trust transcends the mere balancing of budgets. There is a growing awareness that government is overextended, making promises it can't reasonably expect to keep. Essential services are perceived as being at risk -- now and in the future -- and the public seems skeptical of the competence and integrity of their public leaders.

To restore trust, incoming governors will first need to get their budgets in order. But a focus on four additional areas could also help close the trust deficit:

Redesign state government. State government should consider a menu of cost-saving reforms, including rationalizing agencies, process reengineering, ending ineffective programs and reevaluating policy decisions with large price tags associated with them. To do this, states will have to shed the shackles of outdated government structures: hierarchical, siloed organizations; service models driven by bureaucracy instead of citizen needs; budgets that ignore results; and tax systems designed for a long-gone economy. These century-old systems need to be replaced with new models that better address the needs of the 21st century.

This transformation will require new ways of doing business for every aspect of state government, from organizational structures and operating practices to personnel systems and service delivery models.

Deliver on the basics. Yes, citizens are concerned about mounting debt and wasteful spending. But they still expect government to provide essential services. New governors can turn things around only if they enact reforms that balance budgets without decimating critical services.

Education clearly remains the top public priority. According to the Pew study, "In all five states, by a range of 63 percent to 71 percent, majorities say they would be willing to pay higher taxes to keep K-12 public schools at current funding levels." Whether it's education, infrastructure, social services or corrections, you can't ignore critical functions.

Trust is primarily a performance issue. The public will accept imperfection so long as government is getting the important stuff right.

Embrace transparency. The steady drumbeat of coverage in the press on the ethical lapses of public officials erodes public trust. Not only can greater transparency reduce the opportunity for abuse of public funds, it can broaden the general understanding of the challenges facing elected officials. Best of all, transparency isn't expensive.

Many states are making data publicly available in an effort to foster collaboration with citizens, businesses, nonprofits and others. Such efforts offer the chance to navigate tangled fiscal issues and make government smarter, more innovative, more responsive and more trusted.

Transparency is essential to building trust. But governments will have to go beyond simply opening their data vaults and actually work to ensure that the information provided is useful to citizen innovators. That's what Washington, D.C., did with its Apps for Democracy program. The city spent $50,000 to generate $2.3 million-worth of citizen-generated applications using government data, including a historic tours mashup and a location-aware iPhone tool alerting users to crime reports, new building permits and other location-specific news.

Reform pensions. Changing the public pension system is a difficult political challenge, but no issue has greater real and symbolic importance than reforming state retirement benefits.

Over half the states had fully-funded pension systems in 2000; by 2008, the number had fallen to only four. Countless stories over the past year bemoan public pension arrangements that seem outlandishly generous to many voters. Tackling the issue will be vital to new governors, not just because a tide of red ink threatens to drown them, but because there is no better way to demonstrate the state's intention to set its fiscal house in order.

Such reforms include closing loopholes, increasing the minimum retirement age, trimming past promises and ensuring that current contributions going forward at least cover accruing liabilities.

One potential reform is to put a circuit breaker on benefits increases. In 2007, Hawaii passed legislation barring any boost in benefits between 2008 and 2011 if such increases add to unfunded pension liabilities. That same year, Missouri enacted legislation that prevents increases in any benefits where the relevant retirement fund is less than 80 percent funded.

Our nation's new governors take office at a difficult time. These newcomers have to balance their budgets, but they also need to reform how state government operates.

If that happens, they can deliver strong results and help regain the public's trust.

This article is adapted in part from their new book (with Tiffany Fishman) Letting Go of the Status Quo: A Playbook for Transforming State Government.

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.
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