This has been a year of partisan polarization and institutional paralysis in Washington. The inability of Congress to provide leadership and generate consensus on major issues has been obvious not only to the nation but also to the world--from the rancorous debate over Terri Schiavo to the squabbling over filibusters and the ethics investigations that have embroiled the leadership. A poll released last month showed that 56 percent of Americans disapproved of the way Congress was handling its job--the highest disapproval rate in 12 years.
It's hard to find much good in this situation, but one can't help being struck by the contrast between the failures at the federal level and the examples of innovation, cooperation, risk-taking and accountability that have prevailed this year in much of state and local government. The Washington Post recently published a story whose headline read: "States Rush in Where the Feds Fear to Tread." Michael Greve of the American Enterprise Institute calls it "federalism upside-down."
That isn't too much of an exaggeration. On issues ranging from the environment to health care to safety standards, the shift in regulatory authority and activism to state and local governments has continued and deepened over the past year. In many (though not all) of these governments, there also has been a willingness among diverse players to iron out differences and solve problems on a cooperative basis. The eight people selected as Governing's Public Officials of the Year for 2005 each exemplify these trends in one way or another.
Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and New York City Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden have both dedicated themselves--in entirely different ways--to addressing seemingly intractable health care problems. Huckabee initiated one of the nation's most effective programs of insurance coverage for children and has led other governors in seeking to deal with Medicare costs; Frieden launched a crusade against smoking that reduced the number of smokers in his city by 200,000 and will ultimately save many thousands of lives.
Florida State Senator Paula Dockery and Denver Mayor John W. Hickenlooper have shown that bipartisan consensus need not be a mirage, even in the most trying situations. Dockery managed to draft water rights legislation that won the support of environmentalists, developers and a broad range of other diverse interests. Hickenlooper built a transit support coalition broad enough to include Republicans and Democrats, cities and suburbs, labor unions and chambers of commerce, and won passage of a bond referendum that will remake transportation in his entire region.
Nassau County Executive Thomas R. Suozzi and Boston School Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant achieved administrative turnarounds that few thought possible. Suozzi brought his county out of fiscal chaos and back to solvency in the course of little more than three years; Payzant needed more time to lift Boston's schools from mediocrity to respectability, but by focusing relentlessly on math and literacy and investing heavily in teacher training, he has done just that, boosting test scores at a substantially faster pace than most other city school systems have been able to do.
Jerry Luke LeBlanc, Louisiana's commissioner of administration, and Teri Takai, Michigan's chief information officer, have shown that it is feasible to bring business management principles to the public sector and use them to improve the way government works. LeBlanc has spent more than a decade, in both the legislative and executive branches, seeking ways to link spending to results and adopt performance-based budgeting techniques. Takai, coming from the automobile industry into Michigan's cabinet, has consolidated executive-branch technology departments into a centralized organization and launched streamlining and strategic planning initiatives that have saved taxpayers $100 million.
On the following pages are profiles of all eight of Governing's 2005 Public Officials of the Year, selected from nominations by readers, interviews with state and local government specialists, and reporting by the Governing staff.