Making Citizen Task Forces Work

By Falk, Steven | Public Management, December 1993 | Go to article overview

Making Citizen Task Forces Work


Falk, Steven, Public Management


Eight Strategies To Consider

Grand juries, budget review committees, and citizen task forces have become permanent fixtures in our political landscape. During the last few years of governmental belt-tightening, oversight committees charged with reforming, watchdogging, or otherwise cutting costs in government have gained substantial visibility and stature. These committees are distinguished from planning commissions, zoning boards, and other semipermanent groups by their focus on auditing and improving government operations. While loaded with bright people and good intentions, however, these committees often fail in their efforts to bring about broad organizational reform.

These failures are predictable. Citizen task forces are typically doomed because they are charged with generating ideas for governmental reform but have little or no leverage to implement the reforms they suggest. This lack of power to effect change, while often intentional, is exacerbated by three common characteristics of citizen task forces: (1) the temporary, "walk-away" nature of volunteer committees; (2) their often adversarial character; and (3) their general ineffectiveness at generating broad agreement from top government managers. This article suggests that, to be effective, citizen task forces must shepherd their ideas more effectively down the path to implementation. To this end, it offers eight strategies for doing so.

Sample Track Records

Examples of volunteer oversight committees exist at virtually every level of government; few have proven effective at bringing about change. At the federal level, for example, the vaunted Grace Commission, with its powerful group of 2,000 business leaders, issued a highly publicized set of findings and recommendations for improving government in 1983-1984. The group worked for two years, ultimately publishing 12,000 pages filled with 2,478 recommendations on 784 issues.(1) To date, according to Ted Gaebler, coauthor of Reinventing Government, fewer than 2 percent of its recommendations for government reform have been implemented.(2)

At the municipal level, 73 private-sector executives recently served for over a year on the San Francisco Mayor's Fiscal Advisory Committee. Their mission was to review financial systems and controls, planning, productivity, and personnel management. In 1992, the group issued its Executive Summary of the Task Force on Long-Term Cost and Revenue Trends, which presented over 50 policy options for reforming the city's systems. Now, a year later, according to Theresa Sarotta, the mayor's director of finance, only 20 to 30 percent of the recommendations have been implemented, either partially or fully. Said Sarotta, "Not all of the recommendations are feasible or rational."

In Contra Costa County, California, a volunteer Grand Jury with a rotating membership has convened annually for over 30 years to analyze local government programs, to draft reformist schemes, and to issue often-blistering reports on government productivity. The findings, while always interesting, often have met with skepticism by various government staffs. As a result, the 1992-1993 Contra Costa Grand Jury's forewoman, Annemarie Goldstein, recently lamented to the San Francisco Chronicle that she fears that most Grand Jury reports are filed away and that real changes do not result from the Grand Jury system. "We're afraid that they get pushed up on a bookshelf," Goldstein said.(3)

The Critical Path from Idea To Implementation

All proposals for policy changes in government organizations (or almost any kind of organization, for that matter) must follow a critical, four-step path from idea to implementation. If any of the interdependent steps listed in Figure 1 are avoided or ignored, the policy idea is almost certain to fail.

Citizen task forces are ordinarily good at the first step: generating ideas for reforms and new policies. But that also is where they usually stop, altogether ignoring the knee-bone-connected-to-the-thigh-bone nature of the implementation process. …

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