Getting the Government We Deserve

Reinventing Government By Going Beyond the Beltway

By Laurence Peters

Sequence: Volume 31, Number 2
Release Date: March/April 1996

Through a happy conjunction of events, the debate over the future role of government is occurring at precisely the same time that online technology is transforming the nature of what it means to be an educated citizen within a democratic society. The extent to which the "reinvention of government" can engender a complete reexamination of the role of government in the 21st century depends in part on a recognition that the two projects are inseparably linked.

Whether or not we "get the government we deserve," appropriate to the challenges we face in the next century, will not, however, depend on the "policy wonk" or the "techie community" (sometimes one and the same inside Washington's beltway) designing a whole new line of bulletin boards and user-friendly databases for an electronically tuned-in citizenry. It instead will be determined by the extent to which new technology offers us the opportunity to rethink how some of the fundamental functions of government can be addressed from the citizen's viewpoint rather than the perspective of Washington bureaucrats. For example, one of the federal government's major roles involves dispensing hundreds of thousands of grants and contracts; if we temporarily remove from consideration contracts for products and services that narrowly interest the government (such as the purchase of new weapon systems), much of the funding is dedicated to testing out the feasibility of new ideas.

Heretofore, in this context, Washington has tended to treat these grants and contracts as it would the construction of a new tank or airplane, paying more attention to contractor compliance with accounting and procurement rules than displaying any particular interest in what individuals in their local communities were learning from the federal expenditures, as they failed or variously succeeded in achieving their goals. Seen from the Washington perspective, grantees within particular communities - whether housed at local universities, school systems or human service agencies - had very little in common with one another. They all took their funding, sent back the paperwork and either saw their funding dry up as Congress called an end to the "experiment," rejoiced as their grants were renewed, or lost out to competitors in other locations.

Because each local grantee has tended not to be aware of the existence of others, and few in Washington were interested in building on the knowledge developed by particular grantees, it continues to be difficult (particularly at a time of budget cutting) to get local constituents, or their representatives, to understand the value of the federal investments located in their districts. Clearly the millions of dollars washing through their communities have left their mark, but when there is no aircraft carrier or tank to show for it and only a limited number of jobs created, there is an underlying skepticism regarding the value derived from federal programs.

What can be done? As the federal government begins to model itself on the modern corporation, seeking to achieve customer satisfaction in the goods and services it produces, local communities now have a unique opportunity to participate in molding the federal government according to their own needs. Rather than continuing to view themselves as passive recipients of diminishing government largesse, local community leaders could use the capability afforded by new information technologies to sort through billions of pieces of data and build a profile of what has been learned by the local community and elsewhere on what works and why.

This type of exercise - building capability at the local level to provide a common and easy-to-use information base - need not just be confined to the tracking of federal grants; it could be extended to include tracking the impact of foundation, private and corporate giving so that communities can finally see to what extent programs might be "reinventing the wheel" as opposed to building on new knowledge, or how people engaged in working on common challenges might partner together to solve them.

For example, Philadelphia has some 600 grants flowing just into the school district, from adult literacy programs to AIDS reduction programs to environmental education to programs to educate homeless children. This information is available only to a handful of city government insiders, but could provide new insight into funding strategies. How is the funding being used? What number of students are being helped with what results? On closer analysis of the data for example, it might be determined that programs serving the same population, whether they be homeless teenagers or welfare mothers, could benefit from working together not only to reduce their overhead but to complement each other's strengths and compensate for weaknesses. A program for teenage mothers that focuses on health problems might connect with one that has demonstrated how they can stay in school and achieve high school or GED certification. A further side benefit might be to expand access to a whole new class of citizen, (consumers of government services) who would begin to ask new questions, challenging funding officials to think more deeply about what it is they are funding and why. To what extent are we more interested in ensuring a rapid turnover of grants rather than building new knowledge that stays within the community?

It is arguable that without active "local ownership" of the data that the government collects and disseminates we will be unable to move toward a government that is truly "reinvented." More likely the databases that we construct will be used by only a small percentage of highly motivated politically savvy individuals, and the gulf between the government and the people it serves will continue to widen. We now have an opportunity to strike out for a different future - one that will take more effort and will require enormous amounts of leadership on the part of locally based "information haves" to share, along with their technological skills, their faith in the ability of each generation to renew its commitment to our democratic form of government.

This article was written by the author in his private capacity. No official support or endorsement by the U.S. Dept. of Education is intended or inferred.

Laurence Peters is senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Research and Improvement. [email protected]

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