Government reform in a time of crisis


Following the events of September 11, the need to reinvent government “is only more stark,” former Al Gore advisor Elaine Kamarck told the Commonwealth Forum October 18, in a discussion of government reform. “The Challenge of Change: The Future of Government Reform,” moderated by MassINC executive director Tripp Jones, examined the effects of both the terrorist attacks and the state’s fiscal crisis on the debate over ways to improve efficiency in the public sector.

Kamarck, who headed Vice President Gore’s initiative on reinventing government in the 1990s and is now a lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, cited the FBI as one agency that must break free of a Cold War mentality. It must shift its focus “from prosecution to prevention,” she said, spending less time building court cases and working harder to get dangerous people off the streets.

Kamarck did see an opportunity in the fact that the public perception of government had been steadily improving even before the terrorist attacks. After September 11, she added, “the number of people applying for positions in government has gone through the roof.” But Kamarck also warned of a continuing shortage of qualified applicants for specialized jobs, such as those requiring fluency in foreign languages.

Shifting the discussion to the state level was Robert Melia, vice president of Maximus, which provides program management for government agencies. Melia characterized Massachusetts as being in “the middle of the pack” in innovation of public management. Police departments and welfare agencies have been the most successful, he said, because they’re working with clear goals. But there’s been almost no progress on reforming health care, he added, and education reform depends on an acceptance of “the need to measure.”

Harry Spence, a former deputy chancellor of the New York City school system, applauded the shift in education from “input regulation to output accountability.” He noted that the Bay State’s MCAS testing program forces each teacher to be “a reflective practitioner,” thinking more about meeting goals than about complying with regulations. He said that recruitment practices must be changed to attract more innovators to the classroom. Spence also said that the volatile politics of New York “Made me appreciate Massachusetts.”

But Patricia McGovern, former chair of the state Senate’s Ways and Means Committee and now the executive vice president of CareGroup Healthcare System, said that the Bay State’s political culture can be daunting. She recalled championing one reform measure only to be told by a political leader, “You’ve upset longstanding relationships, and you can’t win.”

“We can have the best ideas in the world,” she said. “At the end of the day you need political will.” McGovern pointed to one success during her tenure, the merger of Boston City Hospital and Boston University Medical Center, a move that included the elimination of civil-service jobs. “The mayor stayed with us,” she said, referring to then-Boston mayor Ray Flynn, which made all the difference. Another impediment to reform, McGovern said, is the media’s focus on political missteps, which undermines the message that “It’s all right in government to be creative.”

Stephen Crosby, state secretary for administration and finance, concurred on this point, lamenting the “gotcha mentality” of the media because it encourages a “hostile view of public service.” Crosby also lamented the state of Massachusetts government today, saying that the one-party political scene is a “grotesque travesty of how democracy is supposed to work.” Because of the “overwhelming power of the Senate president and the Speaker of the House,” he added, “the normal ways of marshalling public will are not out there.”

Jones asked for reactions to the idea that an economic downturn can get “people talking about change.” McGovern agreed, saying that public officials start looking for ways to save money during a fiscal crisis, which opens the door to reform measures that would go nowhere when tax revenues are on the rise. “In the good times,” she said, trying to change anything is “brutal.”

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Spence said his experiences confirmed this point of view. Reform in the New York City school system was possible, he said, because a severe contraction in the work force “softened up the bureaucracy.”

The Commonwealth Forums are a joint project of MassINC and Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities. A transcript of the forum, provided by State House News Service can be found here.