Government Reform, Florida-Style

By Moss, Bill | State Legislatures, July 1992 | Go to article overview

Government Reform, Florida-Style


Moss, Bill, State Legislatures


With the support of the Legislature, Governor Chiles has put together a "bureaucracy busting" plan to bring flexibility and innovation to state government. Now, will it work?

Florida Governor Lawton Chiles was spending another day trying to explain his government restructuring plans to an audience of skeptical Tampa business leaders.

He reeled off dramatic changes proposed for state government:

* A plan in the works to break up the state's giant human services agency into 15 new districts more responsive to communities.

* An "education accountability" measure to bring control of schools closer to parents, teachers and school boards.

* Combining two administrative departments into one.

* Personnel system reforms to provide greater flexibility and make bureaucracy more responsive to the "customer."

And naturally he made a pitch for his $1.35 billion tax increase to finance an "investment budget" to drive this reinvented government.

"Reform state government before adding any new taxes," a businessman demanded.

Chiles was frustrated. What about the changes he had just described in human services, education, general government, civil service?

"What the hell do I have to do?" he pleaded.

Good question.

What do politicians have to do to restore faith in the institutions they run? What set of government reforms will click? What new ways of doing business will make people think their government is back to tract, working for them and not against them?

In Florida, Chiles is blazing a trail that one way or another will answer the question. Over the next two years the Sunshine State is likely to show whether new theories of improving government can work in practice. Chiles' experiment may show whether there is practical use for the ideas put forth by David Osborne in his Laboratories of Democracy and picked up by everyone from the Democratic Leadership Council to Republican reformers. Or is it think tank gobbledygook?

Chiles has most of the parts in place. A few more have to be navigated through a mostly receptive Legislature. But the implementing stage lies ahead. And results of selling the program to the public have been no better than mixed. Chiles keeps battling a wary public, a restive Republican minority in the Legislature, a bitter reapportionment fight and a stubborn recession.

Campaign Trail to Executive Chair

The language of reform is lofty, going back to Chiles' 1990 campaign for governor. At the peak of his power but at the depth of despair over his inability to overcome congressional inertia on the budget deficit, he left behind his Senate seat and Budget Committee chairmanship and spent a year in semi-retirement.

He was lured back to politics to run against first-term Republican Governor Bob Martinez. And immediately "Walkin' Lawton," so named after his improbable walk across Florida won him the Senate election in 1970, began talking a strange new vision of "reinventing" government.

"The difference between a crowd and a community is that in a crowd there is no covenant," said Chiles, 62. "People are standing next to each other, but they are looking out only for themselves. In a community, they recognize that all are diminished when one suffers, and that one cannot be deprived without depriving all."

Chiles won convincingly, then set out to turn Florida's government around. Now he was not one of 535, but was the executive at the top, the leader of 160 legislators, 136,000 state employees and 13 million Floridians.

Florida's government restructuring plans are made up of civil service changes, education reform, improved productivity, performance measurements, administrative streamlining and restructuring of the Department of Health and Rehabilitatives Services (HRS).

Reform of HRS was a logical place to start. The department's 44,000 employees and $8 billion budget make it the largest states agency in the country. …

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