Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Revisiting Administrative Reform in the American States: The Status of Reinventing Government during the 1990s. (A Difference of Opinion)

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Revisiting Administrative Reform in the American States: The Status of Reinventing Government during the 1990s. (A Difference of Opinion)

Article excerpt


Reinventing government is a phrase and a movement that burst onto the public administrative landscape like a bombshell, a lightening rod, an epithet, or a combination of all three. The intensity of sentiment associated with "reinvention" as a concept appears to be broad and deep, as well as powerfully negative or positive. It has been referenced as "the most popular paradigm of public administration in the 1990s" (Gabrielian, Holzer, and Nufrio 1998, 1948). Reinvention, like other administrative reforms, has divided "scholars, graduate programs, and professional associations into two camps" (Ott and Goodman 1998, 544). The razor-sharp edge and polarized divide involving reinvention is well illustrated by Professor Calista's reaction to our previous article (Brudney, Hebert, and Wright 1999). Adopting his convention of omitting authors' names, we refer to him subsequently as our "critic." He is, in fact, a solitary critic of an article that has otherwise earned publication as well as commendation and recognition. The original article received both the Masher Award (from Public Administration Review) in 2000 and the Kaufman Award in 1998 (best paper in public administration at the 1997 Meeting of the American Political Science Association). Scholars in the field of public administration appointed to two selection committees (as well as PAR reviewers and panelists at the APSA Meeting) not only have reviewed the article on its competitive merits, but also judged it deserving of distinguished awards.

Our aim in this essay is to move beyond the immediate, intense, and varied controversies surrounding reinvention. We pursue this aim with three specific objectives in mind. First, we build on our earlier analysis (based on data collected in 1994) to update the status of state-level reinvention by reporting results from the 1998 replication of the prior survey of state administrative agencies. Second, we clarify and emphasize the descriptive, empirical, and explanatory stance with which we approach reinvention in the American states. Third, in the process of pursuing the prior aims, we address several issues raised in the accompanying commentary by our critic; we show them to be misguided, unfounded, and unwarranted.

Reinventing government constitutes an administrative reform movement that is now a decade old. Osborne and Gaebler's memorably titled Reinventing Government gave the movement its label and impetus in 1992. At the national level, reinventing government received support from the Clinton administration through the National Performance Review (1993), an effort that incorporated many of its key features. Among state and local governments, the movement also found support in the recommendations of the Winter Commission (National Commission on State and Local Public Service) and its inclusion of selective components from the reinvention agenda (Thompson 1993). On a broader and international basis, reinvention has been linked with the New Public Management movement (Peters and Pierre 1998).

After 10 years of rhetoric, explication, and application, there is speculation about whether this reform (and its close relatives) constitutes a significant paradigm shift in public administration. Light (1997) suggests as much in his discussion of "liberation management" as the fourth tide of reform in the twentieth century. If reinvention is a full-fledged fourth-reform tide, then it appears to represent a shift as fundamental as the development of the administrative management approach in the early twentieth century (Barzelay 1992; Ingraham and Romzek 1994; Peters 1996).

Even if reinvention does not pass muster as a fundamental shift, it is still a topic worthy of substantial and sustained investigation. Despite its recent vintage, we hypothesized prior to our 1994 survey of 3,000 state agency heads that it had penetrated sufficiently far into the administrative apparatus of the 50 American states that it could be described empirically and explained systematically. …

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