Transforming American Governance: Rebooting the Public Square

Alan P. Balutis, Terry F. Buss, and Dwight Ink, editors

(M.E. Sharpe, 2011)

Do we really need another book on transforming government to prepare us for the myriad challenges that are sweeping over the public sector? Yesuntil government picks up the pace. As this book points out, we need a government that can operate on demand.

From the table-setting preface through 21 chapters this book offers a thoughtful collection of fresh perspectives on what needs to be done to create a 21st century governance model. The model must include authentic citizen engagement; reliance on collaborative networks; and partnerships to deliver services and solutions. While readers may wish to devour all of this books ideas from cover to cover, four chapters may offer the most actionable, near-term takeaways for busy practitioners.

Citizen Enragement vs. Citizen Engagement

In his chapter, Turning Citizen Enragement into Citizen Engagement, Alan Shark explores the potentially dark side of e-governmentincluding the possibility of some sites intentionally, or not, (contributing) to citizen rage. Concentrating on this phenomenon at the local level, Shark shares his insight on expectations for citizen interaction across generations.

Many citizens today, particularly younger ones, expect to provide their own contentnot just be the recipient of it from local jurisdictions. Shark also notes, the mobile device has become the central means of communicating two-way informationfacts as well as opinion, text as well as photos and videos.

This trend raises a number of questions:

  • How can government keep pace with these changes and expectations for greater interactivity?
  • How do we deal with the inevitable widening of the digital divide?
  • What can or should local governments do to ensure that people feel their voices are being heard?

While this chapter does not provide a blueprint for how government can proceed on these challenges, Shark offers examples and provides references and online links to many local-level innovations and forward-looking initiatives at the state and federal level. Shark reminds us, Civic engagement has always been a necessary component of democracy (Now) there is no turning back. The digital town hall never closes.

21st Century Collaboration

Three chapters offer guidance and examples of what more can be done to make collaborative culture the default for American governance behavior.

Federal Level Challenge

In his chapter on Improving Collaboration at the Federal Level, Tom Stanton uses the Hurricane Katrina and BP oil spill incidents to remind us how painfully obvious it was that our government bureaucracies and related players were incapable of acting in harmony with one another to respond to these disasters. And while technology can be an enableras it has been in the collaboration, for example, of a wide array of public assistance programshe also notes that technology alone is not sufficient.

Indeed, organizational culture also likely played an important role, Stanton says. He goes on to argue that its time to promote a more collaborative organizational culture within the federal sector by putting in place more collaborative leaders and managers and having the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and individual departments employ more interagency structures and rating systems in policy implementation. Beyond this, Stanton offers a wide range of specific tools that OMB and departments can use to overcome internal, congressional, and interest-group resistance to these reform measures. In effect, he concludes that agencies that fail to improve collaboration among all levels of government risk finding that the way they perform their missions is obsolete.

Wither Regional Governance?

Next, Thom Reilly and Robert Tekniepe bring this discussion down to the city and county level in their chapter, Collaborative Regional Networked Systems. Given the imperative for cross-jurisdictional cooperation in virtually all matters affecting regional challenges of the 21st centuryincluding economic development, security, environment, transportation, healthits time to tackle the barriers to such efforts. These barriers include the weak state of regional governance institutions; and federal and state laws, regulations, and funding arrangements that inhibit providing more integrated services across multiple governmental boundaries and among private sector and nonprofit organizations.

Reilly and Tekniepe drill down further to provide examples of nine different organizational approaches being used across the United States to bring about such networking, including efforts in St. Louis; San Francisco; North Central Texas; Boston; Utah; Erie County, New York; Nevada; Kentucky; and Allegheny, New York. Furthermore, the authors identify 20 factors considered keys to success in these collaborative undertakings that cover such topics as environment (history and support for collaboration), member characteristics, process and structure, communication, purpose, and resources. This chapter includes an extensive list of references and concludes with the observation that local leaders (need to) be skilled in managing networks.

I would go one step further: Our community of practice (the American Society for Public Administration, among others) should examine todays public administration curriculum and training programs (including certified public management competencies) to ensure that leaders at all levels of government are equipped with the professional skills to avoid the obsolescence Tom Stanton warns against in his chapter.

Technology-Enabled Collaboration

Taking her cue from Charles Darwin, who suggests that humans have avoided obsolescence by learning to collaborate and improvise, Lena Trudeau offers practical examples of collaboration and improvisation in her chapter, The Evolution of Collaboration. With an eye toward tapping the power of Web 2.0, she delves into an array of cases that demonstrate how early technologyenabled collaboration has led to innovative success. Here are a few examples.

  • the combination of the KatrinaHelp wiki and the Katrina PeopleFinder project that took advantage of a collaborative web-based network to quickly make available comprehensive online data across a wide spectrum of users
  • an eight-day national dialogue on IT solutions that generated hundreds of actionable ideas and approaches to make improvements on a wide range of governance topics
  • a Google maps approach (Virtual Alabama) used to assist a states first responders at the local level
  • a collaborative editing approach (the New Zealand Police Act wiki) that involved a global audience to reform laws on these matters.

To overcome the limitations of the early innovationstypically one-off experiments that used only a fraction of the power of collaborative technologynew, open government initiatives are underway to make headway on three major fronts: transparency, participation, and collaboration.

Here again, Trudeau brings us up-to-date on significant efforts at different levels of government that show promise, including NASAs Open Source Software Development initiativean open government planning process, and Manor Labsa local-level idea generation platform in Manor, Texas.

Recommended Reading

These chapters offer only a taste of the penetrating thought and reporting that has gone into Transforming American Governance.

I recommend it to professional public managers at all levels of government as well as to those whose mission is training and educating future generations of public servants.