David Osborne: A Prophet of Innovation

Author DAVID OSBORNE tells how to reinvent government and fight bureaucratic bloat

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These days, when political influence is measured in minutes of face time with Bill Clinton, rival job seekers jealously track the comings and goings at the Governor's mansion in Little Rock. More than a few of them took note when, amid the procession of Senators and big campaign contributors, a shy, intense, bespectacled man with an unfamiliar face met for nearly an hour one-on-one with the President-elect.

The mystery guest was David Osborne, 41, a public policy consultant and author who shares Clinton's passion for such nuts-and-bolts issues as bank lending to inner-city residents and privatized pothole repair. The two met in 1985, when Osborne interviewed Clinton for his first book, Laboratories of Democracy, which was published in 1988 and included an admiring chapter on Clinton's education reforms in Arkansas. Since then, Clinton has promoted Osborne's writings to fellow Governors. Osborne's ideas have been praised -- and implemented -- by politicians ranging from Republican Governor William Weld of Massachusetts to Democratic Governor Lawton Chiles of Florida.

While researching his latest book, Reinventing Government, Osborne spoke regularly with Clinton, who began using his ideas and examples on the campaign trail. Co-authored by Ted Gaebler, a consultant and former city manager, the book has sold 70,000 copies since its publication last February and has had a profound influence on policymakers around the country. "This book should be read by every elected official in America," Clinton gushed for a blurb on the dust jacket. "Those of us who want to revitalize government in the 1990s are going to have to reinvent it. This book gives us the blueprint."

Osborne and Gaebler show how state and local governments are dismantling bloated, rule-bound bureaucracies by injecting competition and market incentives. Using hundreds of case studies, the authors have distilled principles of "entrepreneurial government" that Clinton says he intends to apply in Washington. They include:

Steering rather than rowing.

Innovative Governors and mayors have learned, Osborne says, that just because the private sector is not providing a needed service, government does not have to "create a bureaucracy to do the job all by itself." Some governments hire private contractors to run prisons or sweep streets. Others act as catalysts -- bringing community leaders together with charitable foundations, for example, to build low-income housing.

Empowering rather than serving.

The underprivileged should be encouraged to help themselves through their own communities, Osborne argues, citing cities that have increased effectiveness and cut costs through community-based policing and tenant-managed public housing.

Injecting competition into public services.

While some cities and states have successfully privatized such functions as landscaping and data processing, Osborne emphasizes that "the important distinction is not public vs. private, it is monopoly vs. competition." Phoenix, Arizona, for instance, allowed private contractors to bid against city garbage-collection crews and spurred both to become more efficient.

Rewarding success, not failure.

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