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There’s a magic quality to offering people something valuable for free. Gov. Bill Haslam knew that Tennessee, ranking near the bottom among states in granting postsecondary degrees, would lose out to rival states if it continued to have a poorly educated workforce. To entice more people into higher education, he decided to offer students two free years of college. “We had to change the thinking so that more of the conversations around the dinner table were about where you’re going to college,” Haslam says, “not if you’re going to college.”
Haslam’s Tennessee Promise program offers students more than scholarships. Thousands of mentors around the state keep them focused, while mandatory community service requires students to do something in return. Nearly 60,000 have enrolled since the program got underway in 2015, not only boosting attendance figures but increasing completion rates as well. It appears to have had a trickle-down effect, with high school students trying harder because they need at least a 2.0 GPA to qualify for the benefit.
The program has been emulated in states and cities from Oregon to Chicago. In order to make it work, Haslam has relied on lottery money. He understands that figuring out how to pay for a good idea is just as important as landing on that idea in the first place.
Haslam, a 60-year-old Republican and a former Knoxville mayor, has been around Tennessee politics for a long time. His family owns the Pilot chain of gas stations and truck stops. Much of what he’s done to improve the state is derived from a business mindset -- making a plan and then figuring out what the milestones and metrics are that allow you to review success along the way. Too often, politicians approve a policy and declare victory. Haslam understands implementation is where the real work begins.
When he came into office in 2011, Haslam did a top-to-bottom review of state agencies. As is common with such exercises, he found a lot of low-hanging fruit, but Haslam was determined to push for deeper changes. He convinced the legislature to change laws regarding training and accountability, and he institutionalized reforms in personnel and management that alter the way agencies carry out strategic goals and interact with other parts of government.
Most important, Haslam struck a blow against the culture of bureaucratic entitlement that had pervaded some state agencies. Naturally, there was pushback as certain services were privatized and civil service protections abolished. But managers throughout state government can now hire the best people they find to fill jobs and reward those whose performance is outstanding. “It really is now much more based on how hard you work, not how long you’ve worked,” says state House Speaker Beth Harwell.
Haslam understands that government ultimately is not a business, that it provides goods and services people can’t buy for themselves. States sometimes act like monopolies, he says, because they are monopolies. His approach has helped state employees overcome that mindset, providing better services virtually across the board.
Tennessee still has a few low rankings, but there’s one it wouldn’t give up: It has the third-lowest tax burden in the country.