Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Reinventing Government: City Manager Attitudes and Actions

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Reinventing Government: City Manager Attitudes and Actions

Article excerpt

Administrative reform has been a perennial if highly variable phenomenon in the United States since the Progressive Reform era. It has been experienced at all levels of government, memorialized by numerous study commissions, and embodied in legislation and executive orders. At the national level, its nomenclature represents many of the icons of public administration: the Pendleton Act, merit systems, scientific management, the Taft Commission, the Brownlow Committee, the Hoover commissions, and the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. The values pursued and promoted by reformers--neutral competence, representativeness, executive leadership, employee rights and well-being, professionalism--penetrated the theory and practice of public administration and remain vital today.

Like the fickle auto that just won't tune right, government administrative systems always seem to need a good mechanic with a toolbox and a plan. The most widely-heralded administrative reform mechanic of the 1990s was David Osborne, whose 1992 book Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is Transforming the Public Sector (co-authored with Ted Gaebler) spawned a powerful reform movement whose terminology and principles have become part of the organizational vocabulary throughout U.S. governments. Osborne, a journalist, and Gaebler, a Visalia, California, city manager, captured the attention of elected officials, public administrators, scholars, and the reading public in their best-selling book, which asserted that governments could fundamentally transform their systems and organizations to dramatically increase their effectiveness, efficiency, adaptability, and capacity to innovate. It was not long before some eager federal, state, and local organizations were busily engaged in seeking to decentralize operations, develop market incentives, apply private sector management principles, empower employees, and become more customer-friendly. Soon critics began to appear like ants at a picnic, first as sporadic scouts, then as a torrent. Reinvention, they argued, over-promised and would under-deliver. It was "a jumble of ideas and impulses expressing uncertainty and confusion" (Carroll 1996, 24). By celebrating and attempting to adopt private sector strategies and techniques, reinvention was worshipping at an altar that threatened the fundamental constitutional underpinnings and legal doctrines of public administration (Moe and Gilmour 1995). It represented "a pervasive and potentially pernicious attack on bureaucracy that may ultimately undermine the professional public service" (Kearney and Hays 1998, 39). Its operating assumptions and principles were contradictory, simplistic, and doomed to fail as yet another administrative reform fad.

Beyond the rhetorical smoke that envelops what has clearly become the dominant paradigm for government reform in the 1990s (Carroll 1996; Frederickson 1996) lie interesting and important empirical questions. Two such questions are fundamental to developing an understanding of reinvention's importance and staying power. First, to what degree have managers in government adopted reinvention thinking? Second, to what extent have these principles actually been implemented, and what factors explain their implementation? This article attempts to answer these questions at the local government level with data from a national survey of city managers. Following a brief review of the history and literature of the reinvention phenomenon, with particular attention to local government, we develop and test a model of reinvention. We find that reinvention principles are widely accepted by city managers, but that there is a gap between acceptance and action taking that can be partly explained by the characteristics of managers, local governments, and local communities.

The Roots of Reinvention

Reinvention is not just another instance of American exceptionalism. It is an international movement that began in the early-to-mid 1980s and evolved into an expansive, holistic approach to government and public administration reform. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.