By Richard S. Davis
In his inaugural address, Gov. Jay Inslee announced the beginning of a “multi-year effort to bring disruptive change to Olympia.” He wants to institute “a cultural shift that will endure well beyond my administration.”
This is not uncommon. New administrations regularly cast themselves as harbingers of a new era. Few politicians wish to distinguish themselves as stewards of the status quo. Yet, the new governor’s agenda looks a lot like it’s taken from, among others, Chris Gregoire’s playbook.
His message, a good one, addresses “efficiency, effectiveness and transparency,” “performance metrics,” and “quantifiable results.”
“We will measure success by the results we produce, not the money we put in,” he pledges.
In 2005, Gregoire said, “There’s a big difference between saying we’ll spend money, and actually making sure the job gets done… it’s up to us to give you a return on your investment in no uncertain terms.”
Progressive Democrats have long promoted a reform agenda, in part to generate public confidence in government’s ability to handle ever increasing responsibilities. In the 1990s, President Clinton promised to “reinvent government” saying, “Our goal is to make the entire federal government less expensive and more efficient and to change the culture of our national bureaucracy away from complacency and entitlement toward initiative and empowerment.”
Consultants associated with that effort advised Gov. Gary Locke as he implemented his “priorities of government” budget reform.
Getting the small things right is important but rarely dramatic. Disruptive change morphs into incremental improvement. Voters may not notice much difference. But there are positive outcomes: shorter waits, swifter completion of road repairs, faster public safety response times, better health care delivery. Branding better housekeeping as reinvention or disruptive change may seem like good marketing, but overreaching hype can also fuel cynicism. Olympia insiders already note that the new governor has largely staffed his administration with familiar faces. That’s not necessarily a problem. Talented people under new leadership are can capably chart a new course. But the governor will soon have to take command of a specific reform agenda.
Change comes hard in government, which operates according to Newton’s First Law: resting objects stay resting, moving objects continue in a straight line at a fixed speed unless acted upon by an external force. It’s the dead weight of inertia, a history of doing things the way we’ve always done them.
Disrupting the equilibrium is more difficult in government than in other large institutions. The consequences of failure are less immediate. Political, fiscal and structural factors reinforce a bureaucracy that stands stolid against the winds of change attending every election.
Our state has a constitutional bias for stability and continuity. An unusual degree of agreement is required to get things done. Ultimately, everything is a negotiation.
The governor’s office is institutionally weak, with executive authority distributed among nine statewide elected officials. In a recent Seattle Times op-ed, Gregoire reiterated her call for a cabinet-level department of education, pulling together the state’s eight education agencies under a single administrator, accountable to the governor. It makes sense and reduces some of the state’s executive fragmentation.
Legislative change requires agreement between the House and Senate; where there’s disagreement, there’s no change. Collective bargaining agreements and civil service protections impose additional constraints. From outsourcing and privatization to changes in compensation, the governor must get buy-in from affected employees.
The strings accompanying federal dollars further bind state officials. Changes in Medicaid are subject to federal waivers. The Affordable Care Act adds more layers of complication.
For every voice raised in support of innovation, there’s a chorus howling that we can’t risk the unknown. That’s why it took four ballot measures and 16 years to get charter schools.
The difficult is not the impossible. A new administration has a rapidly closing window of opportunity in which to translate the rhetoric of change to the reality of accomplishment. A budget shortfall and a divided Legislature should be no deterrent. Both Locke and Gregoire demonstrated their greatest reform successes during tight fiscal times.
Inslee says he wants to bring to state government the successful practices of Washington businesses. Business leaders want to assist him. It may not produce disruptive change. Constructive progress would be a good start.
Richard S. Davis is president of the Washington Research Council. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org