Derivitive of "Clandestine Operations" by Damian Gadal / FlickrCC

Government Reinvented: A Conversation with Ted Gaebler

January 23, 2017

Ted Gaebler has had a successful career in public service, city management, and mentoring young professionals. He is perhaps best known for his book, Reinventing Government, which he co-wrote with David Osborne. The innovative ideas in that book have had a widespread impact on government processes, accountability, and the utilization of data for systemic change. The book’s effects reached the federal level and informed the National Performance Review, led by U.S. Vice President Al Gore. Among his many achievements, Mr. Gaebler was recently named the 2016 recipient of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) Distinguished Service Award.

This year, Governing published an article titled “What Happened to ‘Reinventing Government’?” by John Buntin. In this article, Buntin describes the influence of Reinventing Government in the twenty-five years since its publication. In light of this article, Dr. Nelson Lim sat down with Ted Gaebler to review pragmatic, easy techniques that are available to all public sector managers to produce more effective and respected governments. The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity.


Nelson Lim: Let’s talk about the job of local public sector managers.

Ted Gaebler: City managers are paid to run organizations; they are not paid to make public policy. They are in charge of giving the best possible information to inform decisions made by elected officials. This requires that managers are aware of politics but are not the policy makers.

City managers should be neutral. When I was a city manager, no one knew what my personal view was - if I even had one - because it was not important, not relevant. It was my job to train our staff to be good, knowledgeable, creative, non-bureaucratic, and professional – not political.

City council members are elected to solve the problems of their communities. City managers are expected to inform their elected officials and then professionally guide their staffs to implement decisions into actions.

Lim: What are some of the things you did in the six cities and one county you managed?

Ted Gaebler: You need to create a culture where people are willing and happy to give more than what is expected. Everything in a bureaucracy is designed for people to have their individuality lost. Their creativity, their experiences, and their education are not rewarded. People get locked into their roles, pay grades, and job classifications.

I created matrix teams to solve many internal problems that all bureaucracies have. I told all employees that they “work for me.” I told them not to think that they are part of one department only and can’t do anything for other departments. I moved people around so they could form partnerships with people and cross-pollinate between departments. This way you get energy flowing. People reward one another and are dumbfounded at how brilliant some of their colleagues are, and therefore you get way more productivity for the same pay.

City managers, public sector managers, have lots of choices about which systems an organization will work on to improve. If they all need to be done, pick the easiest one. Pick the project that’s the least resistant to change. If the organization is not willing to work on one thing, then we would go to work on another thing. If the organization did not want to work on fixing the civil service system then we would put energy into fixing the IT system. In one organization, you might have a focus on the IT system because there is a lot of energy going into trying to fix it. If you don’t have the resources aligned to work on one problem, then you can work on another that’s more easily addressed. It’s important to get done what you can, and create successes for your departments that people can feel good about.

I don’t have my own agenda, and, frankly, [agendas are] why city managers get in trouble, because people can see them as pro-growth or anti-growth or on one “side” or another on any issue. That’s not what we’re hired to do.

It’s the idea of reinventing government; it’s not the idea of any particular policy choices.

Contact Information

Fels Institute of Government
University of Pennsylvania
3814 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Phone: (215) 898-2600
Fax: (215) 746-2829

felsinstitute@sas.upenn.edu