Choices: Redesigning Public Services
Updated April 2011
(original December 2009 statement archived at
must reject the myth that solving a huge and growing state financial problem
means only higher taxes or painful cuts in services.
There is a
much better approach: Looking at problems with fresh eyes; re-examining old
assumptions; concentrating on outcomes; not being afraid to challenge
traditional practices; advancing unconventional ways of solving the problems.
abilities of citizens and organizations of all political leanings statewide,
so well demonstrated in the past, must now be energized to develop proposals
for redesigning public services to an extent never before contemplated.
Caucus will attach highest priority to redesign of the public sector in its
weekly interviews, its summaries, and position papers. Through interviews and
summaries the Caucus will identify thoughtful redesign proposals, learn about
them, explore their implications, and help elected officials and others become
familiar with them. From time to time it will issue recommendations on
redesign proposals that offer the greatest promise.
Minnesota is at a time for
choosing. Educational performance is stagnant. Health care costs continue to
rise, increasing pressure on employers and the state budget. There are calls
for an expensive renaissance in transit. The middle class is being squeezed
from all sides. World-class businesses have not come to Minnesota for a while,
and some have left. The state, like others, is in the middle of the greatest
budget crisis in its history. And the foundation for Minnesota policy
innovation – the partnership between citizen groups and government – has
Amidst an atmosphere of
polemics there is one area of consensus: elected officials and citizens of all
stripes agree that the state faces major challenges in the years ahead.
A state can lead, or it
can fall behind. There is no middle, no alternative. History is not kind to
those that remain static in a world that is constantly changing. Minnesota no
longer measures itself against other states. We now peg ourselves to the pace
of the world, an interconnected world with worthy competitors and emerging
powers. Minnesota will not lead in the cost or size of our labor force, or on
the bounty of our natural gifts alone. Our edge comes through innovation,
leading by setting the standard, not reacting to it. How we respond to these
challenges will determine whether Minnesota leads or follows as the century
Decline is a choice. It
happens when a state turns away from a penchant for creativity and
improvement, and succumbs to the comfortable drag of mediocrity. Greatness is
made. If it is not being actively maintained, we can assume that we are
Minnesota has arrived late
to the new century. We are trying to excel in a new time without the benefit
of new ideas. And we are frustrated. There is a collective sense that we are
in fact declining as a state. Our anxiety is good. It shows we are unsettled.
There is remarkable
opportunity, through redesign in the public sector. What has made Minnesota
great is not the size of our government, its efficiency, or even its
effectiveness at any one time. The trait that has provided
its edge begins with an ability to understand the relationship between how
public systems are arranged and what they produce; followed by a willingness
to work collectively to improve government and make things work better.
Policymakers tend to
respond to economic crises with familiar short-term and long-term strategies:
modify taxes, operate more efficiently, decrease expenditures, promote
economic growth. The tools come down to tax, cut, or grow the economy. The
most consequential question however – and the one most ignored – is how to
change the way the state spends.
Per capita general fund
spending has increased in Minnesota faster than the national rate of inflation
for state and local government. Per capita growth in the state’s general fund
averaged 5.4 percent annually from 1984 to 2008. During the same period the
Implicit Price Deflator (IPD) for state and local government increased an
average of 3.5 percent annually. Money
is not the problem.
has a history of being a high-tax, high-service state.
We have been able to tax
higher because we offer a better product: Our quality of life, our economic
and social climates, a dynamic and well-educated society.
These virtues do not come
by way of spending alone. Expenditure is secondary to what it is that we do in
the public sector. Are our services good or poor? Do they achieve their goals
as efficiently and effectively as alternatives? What are the alternatives?
Those are the key questions. By the same token cutting taxes is not itself
sufficient to maintain our status as a premier economic state. Important as
they are, when it comes down to it we do not compete on tax rates. That is not
The recent economic
downturn has shined light on the unsustainable nature of our existing systems.
But too many of our leaders fail to see that light. Our creative tools to
shift resources have been used up. We now stand before a cold, unforgiving
wall. We think the only way forward is to close our eyes and blast through it.
If we do, we will tear ourselves apart. To sacrifice with no vision of the
future is to live without hope.
In the short term options
are limited, and budgets will likely be reconciled in part with some
combination of taxing and cutting. Despite being consumed with crisis
management today, it is the responsibility of private and public leadership to
look to tomorrow. We cannot cut our way out of it, we cannot tax our way out
of it, and we cannot grow our way out of it if we expect to have a stronger
state tomorrow. The long-term strategy Minnesota needs now is a process of
redesigning aspects of our public sector so that it works better, at a lower
cost, by working differently. The process is policy entrepreneurship by
thoughtful, engaged individuals and groups.
Redesign for the future
can be seen through redesign in the past. The past fifty years have seen a
succession of improvements in
that came through rethinking aspects of the public sector. In the 1960’s the
Metropolitan Council became a unique organization for a unique metro center,
serving a regional planning function to supplement local controls. In the
1970’s tax-base sharing again tied together the fate of municipalities in the
Metropolis, working to redistribute a portion of the tax base, not tax
revenues. Growth thus occurred more balanced, and evenly, than otherwise would
have been the case. In part because of these innovations the greater Twin
Cities has become one of the finest metropolitan regions in the country.
Other redesigns had
statewide implications. In the 1980’s Minnesota began its legacy of leading
the nation in giving families greater choice in picking schools for their
children. A mother made a call to the Department of Education asking why her
child must attend school in one district, not another where she worked. “Good
question,” came the reply, and so began an era of opening-up the system of
primary and secondary schooling in this country. Nowhere else has the progress
toward improvement been so tangible, or significant.
First came post secondary
options (1985), allowing students to attend public school in districts other
than their own. Second came open enrollment (1988), allowing students to take
college courses for credit while still enrolled in high school. Third came
public school chartering (1991), allowing for choice, competition, and
innovation all within the public system. Fourth came site governed schools
(2009) allowing school districts to create new schools with autonomy and
exemption from state rules and regulation reflective of the chartering sector.
This ability to be responsive to a changing education environment has
particularly strong ramifications for rural communities.
It is possible to make
significant improvements in state functions. K-12 and higher education
continue to harbor great potential for public-sector redesign, as do health
care and matters associated with aging. Together these account for 80 percent
of the state’s budget.
Successful redesigns work
through the existing political environment without being constrained by it.
The process suggests an unconventional approach, exploring different ways of
doing things and not just propping up established systems and methods. It
gives people an opportunity to be part of a solution themselves, inviting
their input. It is pragmatic and not ideological – a change in how things are
done is more likely to succeed if it attracts broad political support. It
responds to a well-understood issue, necessitating a period of study by those
seeking to propose solutions. Recommendations for action must articulate
detail sufficient for bill drafting. An idea will not succeed if it is only an
answer in search of a problem. Vague concepts, or articulation of goals, do
not do the job. Redesign of a system can be slow acting. Work on the way
things are put together, and the processes and incentives created, gets at the
roots of a system. It is the soundest strategy.
The notion of redesign
stands against stagnation and complacency. To redesign is more than finding
efficiencies, and runs deeper than much of the political discourse today. It
is that commonly overlooked – but vastly consequential – space between inputs
(revenue) and outputs (services). When a state fails to address how it
operates the public sector, it is limiting its capacity.
Facing a challenging
budget environment in 1983, Governor Rudy Perpich spoke directly to the
legislature in his budget message:
“The leadership of
Minnesota must and will find new solutions to public problems, and expanded
alternatives to the strategies of cut and tax. Long-term solutions involve
raising revenues through expanded economic activity, and redesigning
government. We need to reconsider and restructure the way we provide state
services. The answers will not come easily.
But if we bring our will
and wit to bear on the problem, solutions will come from the informed
pragmatism of many Minnesotans determined to create new alternatives.”
Former Governor Elmer
Andersen once said when he was asked who might be governor some day:
“I don’t think that’s very
important right now. When the public is clear about what it wants, elected
officials are important. They get it done. But in a time like this, when the
answers are not clear, politicians hesitate. The leaders are those who
generate the new ideas.”
Think of a box. On one end
are the ‘inputs’ to the box, or taxes and other forms of revenue. On the other
end are the ‘outputs,’ or what we see as the product of government agencies
and services. Most popular and political attention has focused only on these
two components. Over the short term the options with inputs are to tax more,
or tax less. On these there is no agreement. Over the long term, nearly
everyone agrees in principle that growth is the best way to increase revenue.
discussion then leaps from the inputs to outputs. There are calls for greater
efficiency and demands for accountability. We want to get more without
seriously changing how we do it. But what matters is what transpires to
provide the result we see. We need to look at how we can do things better by
doing them differently. This is the value in government that we all seek.
The answers do not come on
their own. It is through tireless, inclusive work on what goes ‘inside the
box’ that makes the difference between a state that is ordinary and one that’s
Here is where the Civic
Caucus will turn its attention.
The Agenda for the Civic
1. Aspirations for a
Over the years the Civic Caucus has heard consistently that Minnesotans want a
state that is dynamic, innovative, and a national leader in education, health
care, and quality of life. They want it to be one of the best places in the
world to do business and to raise a family, with good people and good
2. A need for new
ideas. We have
also heard repeatedly that for such goals to be realized the state urgently
needs resurgence in generating good public policy ideas, spelled out in
detail, accompanied by strategies and methods to bring them to fruition. Many
of the interviewees mention that Minnesota was a national leader in public
policy from the 1960s to the mid-1990s. But the state is no longer such a
3. Redesign public
Today’s challenge, however, is greater than that of the past. We have learned
that Minnesota faces almost unprecedented fiscal pressures over the next
several years. We do not just need new ideas for public services that are
delivered in the same mould, or design, as the past. A state cannot simply cut
or spend its way to prosperity. Those are not themselves strategies for
improvement. Efficiency is important, and so is economic growth. But the
design of the public sector matters. The systems of a state must continually
adapt and improve for long-term strength. What is needed is to break the
mould, to redesign public services in ways that capture the times to deliver
more despite severely constrained revenue sources. Such redesign concepts must
be sufficiently detailed to make their implications and impacts clearly
understood, and be accompanied by strategies for implementation.
The level of leadership
present in the ‘60s-‘90s is missing today. There is less emphasis among
organizations on the substance of local affairs. The decline of newspapers has
diminished their role in synthesizing issues and educating the public.
Consequently, the state
will need a new level of creativity from its individual citizens, its
organizations, and its elected local and state public officials. Crisis breeds
opportunity. We must respond by participating in finding solutions. Never
before has the need for better ways of delivering public services been so
4. The state can again
can again be a public policy leader in the nation. We have become
an exceptional state because of an ability to respond creatively to
public problems. The people have generated ideas for action, turned them
into proposals, thereby inspiring officials to enact them. Our advantage has
been our historical commitment to civic discussion and collective action.
Nonetheless, the Caucus
has heard from critics who bemoan a significant decline in recent years in the
number and quality of new ideas. Without substantive proposals on which to
work, elected officials engage in venomous battle over inputs and outputs: Tax
more, tax less. Spend more, spend less. Do what we are doing, but better. The
energy that could be spent working on what goes ‘inside the box’ is instead
caught in partisan battles of little importance.
5. Ideal role for
citizen groups: policy entrepreneurship.
Much of the work
that made this state a national leader was done outside of government, by
engaged citizens who participated out of a sense of responsibility and
There is a model
for those interested in this work: Visit statewide with leaders in the
communities, business and politics. Ask what problems are becoming most
important and have potential for shaping. Form groups of fair-minded citizens
to study the issues, reach conclusions, and offer proposals. Find supporters
in government to move proposals into action. This method of idea generation
has proven remarkably effective for getting good policy. The late John Brandl
had a term for it: policy entrepreneurship.
Many say we cannot return
to these methods and strategies because today’s rancorous political discourse
stifles new ideas. But politics has not really changed. Absent thoughtful
proposals on which to turn their attention, politicians retreat into
partisanship and bickering.
groups should lead the way. Proposals should be unambiguous, with ideas
specific enough for bill drafting. There is reason to be optimistic. Experts
on the policy environment agree that legislators will be receptive because
they, too, see no victories in raising taxes or cutting services. They would
be delighted to see ways that would raise quality without more spending.
6. Ad hoc commissions
Another way to produce new ideas is to convene ad hoc commissions, tasking
them with the consideration of serious policy challenges. Governors are
particularly well situated to convene, but almost any elected official has
potential to use the power of the office to bring varying interests and
citizens together to work on new solutions.
Such commissions must be
diligent in the pursuit of a problem, fair-minded in consideration of issues,
and courageous in the issuance of recommendations that are both thorough and
actionable. Their purpose is not to produce a report but, rather, to generate
a new consensus around a particular issue. The focus is always on results. For
an example of how this can be done, see the still-pertinent 1995 report by
John Brandl and Vin Weber, “An Agenda for Reform.”
Whatever the source
– citizen groups,
commissions, individuals, special interest groups, or legislative staff
– the door that
leads to improved services and better government will more likely be
marked ‘innovation’ and ‘redesign,’ not ‘revenue.’
7. The Civic Caucus
will emphasize policy redesign in its interviews.
Was the Minnesota exceptionalism of the last century an anomaly, the result
of committed individuals coming together with the right practices
under optimal conditions? Can the state’s great partnership – citizens and
their government – be reinvented for a new time with new challenges? After a
period of decline the future of the state is uncertain. The Civic Caucus is
determined to help reverse that decline, and is optimistic.
The Civic Caucus will act
as a champion for redesign and the processes of collective action between
citizens and elected government. Comparative greatness cannot be maintained
without continual innovation and improvement. This culture of idea-generation
and collective action is what has given Minnesota its edge, and is what the
Caucus will promote.
The Caucus will continue
to operate in a strictly nonpartisan manner.
Through its weekly interviews with public figures it will continue to
gather information on Minnesota issues, share the information with its member
base, invite participants to respond, and
share their responses online.
The Civic Caucus will make
special efforts to seek out, and give attention to, interviewees who can
outline specific proposals for redesigning public services. Before meeting
with individuals, the Caucus will verify the extent to which their proposals
for change have been well thought-through, so they can discuss them in detail.
It will not be enough for someone to recommend more appropriations.
its attention on topic areas with major impact on the health of the state.
These may range from education to transportation and aging, and involve all
matters of the economy.
Through its weekly
interviews considering these topics, the Civic Caucus will explore how things
can be done differently to achieve better results. In planning for the
interviews, members will ask guests to think about ideas for redesign in the
areas they understand best.
The Caucus will produce
occasional position papers on topics covered during the weekly sessions, with
emphasis on viable policy proposals.
9. Strengthening the
republic, protecting the means for action.
Historically Minnesota has enjoyed a particularly effective relationship
between two distinct dimensions of the American character: the public and its
government. The public consists of the people and their associations, in civic
and business life. The government includes those we elect to manage our state:
the governor, executive cabinet and staff, and by extension the
state employees responsible for carrying out legislation. We have a history of
effective organizations and governance in this state, bringing people together
to work on public problems.
Elected representatives in
the Legislature work with one foot in each, providing voice for their
constituents while assuming a duty to work toward the best long-term interests
of the state. One former governor liked to describe the legislative session as
a time when “the people of Minnesota will gather to tell the government what
Some of the most respected
observers of political life in this state have warned of subtle erosion at the
foundation of our government. Our representative democracy, the rigors of
which ensure stability and safeguard organized liberty and minority rights, is
under threat. The rise in polemics and partisanship in state politics has led
to widespread cynicism about elected officials. The public doubts their
ability to address critical state issues. This has contributed to a troubling
trend toward direct democracy, voting interests into the state constitution
instead of relying on the deliberate mechanisms of the republic. California
tried this path and is now virtually ungovernable.
The rise of sympathies for
direct democracy threatens the very processes of collective action that have
been core to Minnesota’s exceptionalism. The Civic Caucus will be resolute in
arguing for representative democracy as a superior form of government.
10. Leadership and
is no substitute for capable leadership. Standing opposite the Legislature the
Governor serves an essential role in facilitating policy entrepreneurship. The
Governor can convene and task people to work to solve problems. Not all ideas
will be popular. Executive and legislative leadership need to be open, both to
good ideas and to each other.
The news media can lead
too in public affairs, reporting on new ideas as they are under development
and come forward. Reporters and editorial boards should cover the substance of
government more than the politics of government, or horse-race coverage, that
is common today. They used to do this more often. Electronic news boutiques
may find a niche here, as well as civic groups like the Civic Caucus that have
an educational component for their members.
To lead there must be a
vision. A Governor can supply this, but leadership in public affairs should
come from all organizations working for the benefit of their communities and
the state. Right now professional politicians and staff dominate the public
sector. The decline of corporate investment has been offset by an increase in
the capacity of local foundations to fund the work of policy entrepreneurship.
It is now their time to rise to the challenge of supporting the work of public
sector redesign, leveraging their limited resources for the greatest possible
improving the way the
state does business.
The Governor needs to be
an agent of ideas. Imagination will be the currency of this century, in
economics and in governance. Global inter-connectedness is decreasing the
value of labor in the United States, but raises the premium on creativity and
innovation that can skip across the world instantaneously. The pace of change
has quickened, and those governments best able to adapt and respond will lead.
This state has a history
of chief executives who worked creatively and constructively with private,
civic, and political interests to marshal good ideas and bring them to the
Legislature. Anyone can bring ideas, and they should be encouraged to. But the
Governor enjoys the unique capacity to set the state’s agenda, unilaterally if
so chosen. If ideas are not coming in from the outside a Governor may appoint
commissions to generate them. While the Legislature is a partner, so far as
there is or is not a ready supply of creative solutions to problems the
Governor should be held accountable.
Better, stronger, faster.
At the beginning of this new decade Minnesotans have a rare opportunity to
concentrate on where we are heading. The economic crisis has brought on
a collective self-awareness and reassessment of our condition. A movement for
rethinking how we do things as a state is gathering, helped along by
individuals and groups experienced in redesign and policy entrepreneurship.
We have many assets: A
growing and vibrant population of seniors with an under-realized capacity to
offer their talents; productive workers; a diversified business sector; rich
natural resources; and a strong bio-medical industry that could boom into the
next decades. Minnesotans hold a quiet confidence rooted in a legacy of
excellence, and understand that with great aspirations comes a requirement for
good, smart, work.
And we are hopeful. We
have not been broken by that cold wall of crisis. But hope is not a method.
There is no single answer to the myriad challenges we face. The solutions will
come one at a time, many starting out small. We must cultivate ideas from
everywhere, statewide, looking to the government not for solutions but for
enactment. Given a chance, the
bright people who live
here can find a way to make the state work well. Most of them would never
choose to run for public office. That is okay. The challenge is to put them
together with those who have.
We need an entrepreneur’s
hunger for innovation with patience and tolerance for failure. By applying the
time-tested practices of idea-generation and collective action, the people of
this state will have a strategy for greatness.
The Civic Caucus is a Minnesota-based non-partisan organization offering a new
for public affairs dialogue, educating and encouraging citizens and
leaders across political ideology
to explore solutions to challenges facing