Consensus and Innovation

Rare is the public servant at any level who fails to pay homage to the notion of consensus. Everyone believes in it. But equally rare is the official who can create it: who can walk into a situation of turmoil and discord, promise to bring everyone together, and then deliver.

David Smith did that in Maricopa County, Arizona. When he took over as county administrator five years ago, the government was a cesspool of rivalry and recrimination. The county was $65 million in the red, but the departments were more interested in turf protection than in solving the problem. Smith hit them with a simple message: Stop the bickering, deal with the budget crisis, or there will be no turf left worth protecting. He didn’t just preach consensus, he went out and obtained it — the hard way, one individual and one meeting at a time. Five years later, Maricopa is recognized as one of America’s best managed counties.

Deborah Jacobs didn’t inherit a situation quite as bleak the one in Maricopa. But when she became Seattle’s chief librarian in 1997, voters had just rejected a $155 million library bond issue that civic leaders had been counting on as a centerpiece of the city’s future. Jacobs decided that residents had rebelled because they felt left out of the planning process. She visited every corner of the city, held 100 community meetings in three months — and when she was finished, Seattle overwhelmingly approved a bond issue bigger than the one it had defeated.

In 1999, when Steve Allred agreed to take over Idaho’s Department of Environmental Quality, there were those who felt consensus-building was impossible there: the business groups and conservationists who fought over state policy were just too far apart. Allred didn’t agree. He thought even the bitterest of enemies would respond to a director who listened to them and treated them decently. And three years of that approach have transformed the state’s most turbulent and divided agency into one that virtually everybody involved in the environmental debate respects as open and responsive to their concerns.

Usually, what’s needed in a public policy setting isn’t universal agreement, just a sense that the people in charge are reasonable and fair. That’s the feeling that Kathleen Sebelius has been able to generate in Kansas, where the state Insurance Commission was for decades largely inert and oblivious to even the most blatant mistreatment of consumers. Sebelius took over in 1994 determined to revive the agency and restore some balance. She pushed for new consumer laws and consumer-protection programs; she also eliminated red tape that was making it costly and cumbersome for insurance companies to operate in the state. Carefully performing what she herself describes as a “balancing act,” Sebelius was able to keep both sides friendly enough so that genuine innovation remained possible.

Although the ability to achieve consensus is a priceless gift for any leader in government, it isn’t the only way to operate. Every year, at least one of Governing’s honorees is a single-minded entrepreneur who develops a program, plunges ahead, accepts the fact there will be opposition, and alters the history of his state or community for decades to come.

That’s a pretty good description of Michigan Governor John Engler. When he retires in 2003, after three terms in office, he will have moved Michigan almost irrevocably in the market-oriented direction he favors. His phase-out of welfare for able-bodied adults, while it generated considerable opposition when it was enacted in 1991, turned out to be the forerunner of national welfare reforms whose effects are now generally viewed as salutary. He engineered a tax reform vote that converted the nation’s most onerous property-tax burden into a much fairer and widely accepted system. He also has positioned Michigan in the top tier of states in information technology.

As Chicago’s cultural affairs commissioner, Lois Weisberg has been a fountain of creativity, thinking of every possible way to bring life to the city’s streets and neighborhoods and enhancing its global reputation. From Cows on Parade to Ping-Pong, Weisberg has been willing to try almost anything, and nearly always she has brought it off.

Aldona Valicenti, Kentucky’s chief information officer, has been equally creative in the field of technology. The state Web site she created is a user-friendly guide to 45,000 government and private-sector services. It has simplified the licensing process for more than 1,000 categories of business, from cosmetology to real estate brokerage. Valicenti also has been a pioneer in streamlining the regulation process through the use of digital signatures.

But innovation isn’t always a matter of dazzling new ideas: often it’s a consequence of sheer perseverance and painstaking attention to detail. Texas state Representative Garnet Coleman has devoted nearly a decade of legislating and endless work hours to the cause of children’s health, and the result has been a massive expansion of program eligibility for low-income families. This year alone, his legislative craftsmanship brought nearly half a million Texas kids under the umbrella of Medicaid.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston has built his career around the idea that the key to urban success is neighborhood revival, and that the secret of neighborhood revival is healthy Main Street commerce. It’s an idea that others had long ago, but in recent years, only Menino among big-city mayors has had the patience to convert it into an agenda and labor in its behalf the old-fashioned way: street-by-street, sidewalk-by-sidewalk, storefront-by-storefront. Menino is so obsessed with detail that critics sometimes deride him as a mechanic rather than a visionary: In his view, that’s no insult.

Follow the links below for profiles of all nine of Governing’s Public Officials of the Year for 2001, selected from nominations by readers, interviews with state and local government specialists, and reporting by the Governing staff.

C. Stephen Allred, director, Idaho Department of Environmental Quality

Garnet F. Coleman, member, Texas House of Representatives

John Engler, governor of Michigan

Deborah L. Jacobs, city librarian, Seattle Public Library

Thomas M. Menino, mayor of Boston

Kathleen Sebelius, insurance commissioner, state of Kansas

David R. Smith, county administrative officer, Maricopa County, Arizona

Aldona K. Valicenti, chief information officer, state of Kentucky

Lois Weisberg, commissioner, Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs