“Reinventing Maine Government,” a bipartisan report by Envision Maine that was released in September, details how overspending on Maine government is contributing to the state’s poor economy.
According to the report, these are the guiding principles that our elected officials should use while creating a 21st century government. (See much more detail in the report at www.envisionmaine.org.)
For Maine governments to become more efficient and modern, we’ll need a fundamentally new approach to how it’s organized and what it does.
1. Adjust Our Expectations of Government
The problem of inefficiency isn’t entirely government’s problem. We need to look in the mirror, too. We are, in some ways, our own worst enemy.
Unless Mainers take a hard look at what we demand from government, it cannot change. That’s because we regularly want too much, we want it too soon, and we want it at little or no cost. Nothing else in these recommendations can occur unless we decide to change our expectations.
2. Push Government Leaders to Be Accountable for Future Effects
We need to change the inclination of public officials to seek short-term benefits without regard to long-term consequences. We need to change accounting, budgeting and legislative practices to make the full costs of decisions known, at the time when they are made.
The constant pressure to get re-elected encourages leaders to seek short-term benefits, like givebacks, bailouts, new programs and ribbon cuttings, often at the expense of long-term solvency. This has left us with an over-extended and unsustainable government, pension and health care benefits we can’t afford, infrastructure that we can’t maintain, medical bills that aren’t paid and budgets loaded each year with smaller ticking time bombs.
3. Budget for Results
Don’t create annual budgets based on last year’s budget. That just locks in place yesterday’s structures and approaches.
When governments review budgets each year, they are generally looking at the cost of inputs: labor, overhead, materials. Too often, annual budgets are simply last year’s budgets with some across-the-board adjustments, depending upon available resources. That approach permanently freezes in place yesterday’s structures and works against innovation.
We need a new “zero-budget” approach that constantly re-evaluates needs and funds programs that deliver good results for the dollar and eliminates those that don’t.
4. Invest in Constant Improvements
Change costs money. New systems have to be built and people need to relearn how to work within them. It takes time, effort and resources.
Changing structures and systems doesn’t always produce immediate results, and it often costs money initially. The short-term cost of reinventing institutions and program often becomes an excuse for inaction.
Investing in change should become a permanent priority in government.
5. Measure Performance and Close Outdated Programs
Every level of government needs performance auditing and reviews that ensure that results will be improved. When was the last time that a significant program of state government, in particular, was shut down?
New programs are constantly created, but old ones are rarely eliminated. The cumulative effect is not only inefficiency, it’s also programs that drift in the backwater of government, without real purpose or review. This creates a one-way direction for government—bigger and less manageable—and a bureaucratic structure that isn’t focused on its critical mission.
The state has an Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA), which analyzes various programs. It is far too small, and it is entirely constrained by political control by the Legislature, which tells it what to look at and what to avoid.
To make intelligent decisions about which programs are delivering results most effectively, government leaders need the best data available. Without objective data on results—including how performance compares to other agencies—intelligent management decisions are virtually impossible.
6. Decentralize Government and Empower Employees
Public organizations and systems in Maine need to push authority down, encouraging those who deal directly with citizens to make more of their own decisions.
We need to empower employees to make more decisions about how to produce the best value for taxpayers, and to reward them when they do.
State government, needs to become more “decentralized,” making it smaller and shifting some of its responsibilities to more effective regional governments.
7. Reward Excellence and Remove Incompetence
Move beyond a bureaucratic culture that makes it virtually impossible for government to grow and change. Too many managers in government today cannot manage.
They don’t have the tools or the power that the private sector has to elevate talent, to move people from where they are to where they’re needed, and to constantly adjust teams and schedules to increase efficiency and improve results.
Without a fundamental rethinking of how government operates—and the removal of archaic and unnecessary restrictions—government cannot become more efficient and effective.
8. Use Competition to Drive Improvements
Require service providers within government to compete for their business, based on their performance and price. Competition is the fundamental force that gives public organizations no choice but to improve.
Many governments across the country and globe now require their public agencies to compete with private firms every few years for the right to deliver particular services. No matter who wins the competition, savings of 10% to 25% are common.
9. Make government more accountable to taxpayers
Public organizations in Maine should treat those they serve—the parents whose children they teach, the people who line up to renew driver’s licenses, the citizens they are trying to protect from pollution and the small business owner trying to get started—as they would customers in a business they owned.
They should listen to them, through surveys and focus groups; set standards of service and guarantee them to customers; provide redress when they fail to deliver; give customers a choice of service providers; and whenever possible, let customers take public dollars with them when they choose a different service provider.
10. Use Market-Oriented Strategies and Public-Private Partnerships to Solve Problems
To get better results with less money, Maine governments need to use the marketplace and partnerships to solve problems, not just government programs and regulation.
They need to use financial incentives—matching payments, tax incentives, vouchers and the like—to drive other governments, private organizations and individuals to behave in ways that solve societal problems.
They need to pursue public-private partnerships whenever they are more cost-effective than government monopolies, engaging both nonprofit and for-profit partners in delivering public services.