Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Reinventing Local Government: A Case Study of Organizational Change through Community Learning

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Reinventing Local Government: A Case Study of Organizational Change through Community Learning

Article excerpt


Osborne and Gaebler's (1992) model of governments that steer rather than row impairs accountability, coordination, equity, and fairness in services. This article advocates an alternative model in which government employees and citizens learn to share responsibility through transforming mental models of role definitions and enactments. The article describes how a Connecticut municipality accomplished this using learning, applying Total Quality Management to achieve "small wins" and creating shared responsibility for governance. It suggests ways other governments can use learning to bring incremental changes in productivity and citizen support.


In Osborne and Gaebler's (1992) Reinventing Government, entrepreneurial government shifts control from bureaucrats to customers unilaterally. In their model in which government "steers rather than rows," the authors assert that community-based governance is superior to the bureaucratic model in that communities have more commitment to serving particular clientele, more flexibility and creativity, more effective and efficient normative standards, and more capacity for stimulating change.

Osborne and Gaebler fail to discuss fully problems that can result from overbalancing the consumer side of the bureaucraticconsumer relationship. Moe (1994) shows that citizen groups having decentralized authority often form their own coordinating structures and processes. It often means using short-term political leadership, ad hoc interagency committees, and contractors and consultants who have little understanding of agency legal missions, programs, and objectives. Frederickson (1996) points out that the fragmented coordination leads to diffused accountability; the assumption is that any enterprise can deliver government goods and services. Lack of consistent coordination also results in incoherent policy, vying for political control of public resources and biased interests and lack of equity in program development (Stewart and Ranson, 1988; Potter, 1988; Walmsley, 1990).

Balanced accountability requires reeducating the public as well as government employees in citizenship (Schachter, 1995). When government and customers learn to identify and use each other's strengths and resources, learning that produces organizational change can result (Robertson and Tang, 1995). The Osborne and Gaebler reinvention model should change from an "either-or" conception to more of a continuum.

Such mutual learning occurs as individuals derive information about mutual perceptions, identify and revise flawed assumptions, and change non-productive interactions (Argyris and Schon, 1978). For government organizations, this means gathering information regarding service delivery, examining the assumption that citizens are passive recipients of services, and thinking about citizens as partners. For customers, this means finding out problems and taking responsibility to contribute information, expertise, time, and financial resources as citizen-stewards.

Berman and West's (1995) study of over 400 U.S. municipalities that had implemented Total Quality Management (TQM) in the early 1990s suggests that mutual learning and change can occur. In TQM, customers provide focal information for organizations to improve fundamental assumptions about how they provide services and products. By establishing customer-based information, organizations produce better goods and services; this creates a more competitive market position as well as better satisfies customer needs.

In successful TQM implementations, Berman and West noted that municipalities demonstrated high commitment to employee involvement, recognized achievements in self-initiated change projects, and set up a variety of intra- and inter-organizational information networks. Through learning and information sharing, internal as well as external customers produced innovative public services. …

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