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August 20, 2004

A Tool Is a Tool Is a Tool

Reinventing the Executive Branch

By Betsey Culp

There’s a myth flying around the country that all our social ills can be alleviated by applying a few good business principles to government. Like a moth near a flame, this myth is headed for disaster. 

My summer reading has included “Reinventing Government,” the book by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler that helped to propel Al Gore into the arms of New Democracy. First published in 1992, its avowals of faith in the future bring back the giddy atmosphere that was part of the dot-com “revolution.” The tone is energetic and optimistic, befitting an era that many regarded as truly millennial:

Today’s environment demands institutions that are extremely flexible and adaptable. It demands institutions that deliver high-quality goods and services, squeezing ever more bang out of every buck. It demands institutions that are responsive to their customers, offering choices of nonstandardized services; that lead by persuasion and incentives rather than commands; that give their employees a sense of meaning and control, even ownership. It demands institutions that empower citizens rather than simply serving them.

Osborne and Gaebler’s rhetoric echoes in the enthusiastic sentiments of the young Wade Randlett, who in 1992 was just beginning to organize the up-and-coming entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley into a political force behind Clinton and Gore. Randlett presently serves as president of the San Francisco business-based political action group SFSOS. Sara Miles quotes him in “How to Hack a Party Line”: “This is what the [Democratic] party should be about. We believe in lots and lots of equal opportunity. We have to get out the idea that, yes, we are in favor of an economy where a gay fat Korean immigrant engineer can make $100,000 a year. That’s the important message: there’s just an outrageous amount of money to be made in the New Economy if you educate yourself and work hard."

Osborne and Gaebler argue that government has failed in the United States. Or rather, that the continuation of a slow-moving, bureaucracy-ridden form of government is failing the United States: “The emergence of a postindustrial, knowledge-based, global economy has undermined old realities throughout the world, creating wonderful opportunities and frightening problems.” The problem is a clumsy, inefficient, expensive  “way of doing business in the public sector.” The solution is the development of “entrepreneurial government,” where “public sector institutions … constantly use their resources in new ways to heighten both their efficiency and their effectiveness.” And they find examples of success everywhere: “It is as if virtually all institutions in American life were struggling at once to adapt to some massive sea change — striving to become more flexible, more innovative, and more entrepreneurial.”

It is true that governments in the United States have had a hard time solving perennial social problems such as homelessness, inadequate healthcare, and substandard education. But in the early 1990s, sudden and rapid technological advances introduced a heady can-do pragmatism into the debate. Hope for the country was on the way, in the form of good old-fashioned American ingenuity.

Or was it? What’s the Biblical warning about serving God and mammon? In the twenty-first century, the injunction might well be extended to include the simultaneous service of country and company. But in 1992 no one was thinking that far ahead.

Fast-forward to the fall of 2003. In San Francisco mayoral candidate Gavin Newsom promised an administration marked by its "humility in the face of good ideas." As an augury of things to come, he set up a public lecture series called “Great Cities, Great Ideas.” The first featured speaker was the co-author of “Reinventing Government,” Ted Gaebler.

Newsom based his campaign on the skills he had acquired as a businessman, not on the political lessons he had learned as a supervisor. He won. And the rest is history. Today the media adore him for his daring promotion of same-sex marriages and equally for the attractive image he and his wife project. The New Democratic Leadership Council, doubtless in appreciation of both his fund-raising abilities and his defeat of a Green Party challenger, recently named him “New Dem of the Week.”

The authors of “Reinventing Government” repeatedly remind their readers that they like governments. “We care deeply about what governments do, but this is a book about how they work…. The central failure of government today is one of means, not ends.” Newsom concurs: "We are going to make City Hall smarter and more connected to the people we serve and we're going to do more with less."

It all sounds so very promising.

The problem is that means are tools, nothing more. In and of themselves, they cannot guarantee any specific end. On the contrary, they can only guarantee the end desired by the parties that make the most skillful use of them.

That’s exactly what has happened in the decade since “Reinventing Government” was written. In the interest of flexibility and innovation — the tools of any good entrepreneur in the world of private business — democratic principles have been damaged.

In San Francisco, for example, now that the exuberance of last February’s same-sex marriages has faded, it’s possible to look at the experience a little more dispassionately. It was a moment of glorious urban theater. It affirmed a high moral position. But in a city where public opinion overwhelmingly supports same-sex marriages, it was the action of one man. It was an action taken with no apparent consideration of how to proceed if the marriages were invalidated. And forgive me for being cynical, but it was the action of the same man who, as a member of the Board of Supervisors, was part of a minority of two when the Supes voted overwhelmingly to oppose military action in Iraq. The same man who was absent when the Supes voted to condemn the Patriot Act. This is not a man with a strong record of progressive activism.

Gavin Newsom’s relationship with the Board of Supervisors has always been strained, even when he was a member of that body. Now, as he attempts to implement his own agenda in the face of a resistant board, he must chafe at the lack of supporting votes he finds there. At present, he has enough to prevent a veto override but not enough to pass legislation. The Chronicle reported earlier this month that Newsom, never a advocate of district elections, has been renewing his criticism of the system: "That's the problem with district elections.... We all get into our little niches.''

No matter its merits, Newsom’s espousal of same-sex marriages came out of the special niche he occupies in Room 200 at City Hall. It was a unilateral action by the head of the executive branch of the government, with no apparent consultation with the legislative branch. In the same way, Newsom used his executive powers to vacate the executive directorship of the Treasure Island Development Agency and to appoint Supervisor Tony Hall to fill the position, apparently without looking very hard for other candidates. (Hall’s appointment allowed Newsom to fill a vacancy on the Board of Supervisors with his liaison to the board, Sean Elsbernd.) Mayors can, of course, appoint their own staffs, but in this case the legal responsibility for appointing the director lay not with Newsom but with TIDA. The concept of executive power was stretched when the mayor called the TIDA Commission into special session to perform a speedy — some say hasty — approval of the appointment. The agency’s unanimous compliance was prefaced by a reminder from commission member John Elberling that commissioners serve at the pleasure of the mayor. Shortly afterward, on the same afternoon, the concept of executive power was stretched even further when the Ethics Commission convened in special session to rule post-haste, without time for a review by the City Attorney’s office, on the appointment’s conflict-of-interest issues. No problem, ruled the commission, in a 4-1 vote.

Newsom has been doing what any good CEO would do. He’s been cutting through a lot of bureaucratic dead wood to get results. In choosing this approach, he’s not alone. Far from it. In fact, he’s keeping some pretty high-powered company.