Getting 1,000 Flowers to Bloom in an Arid City Hall

Reinventing Government, a political movement with a deceptively benign name, is about to shake up the tradition-bound men and women who run the city of Los Angeles.

Mayor Richard Riordan is a movement disciple. Massed against him are nonbelievers that include the bureaucrats, union leaders and City Council members who follow timeworn patterns devised sometime before World War II.

It's an odd sort of movement to threaten so much trouble, odd because it has none of the trappings of a revolution. No demonstrations, banners, burning buildings or gunfire in the streets.

Reinventing Government began in policy seminars at governors conferences and national meetings of mayors and city council members. Earnest, detail-loving officials labored over plans for more efficient ways to deliver health care, pick up garbage, enforce the law and run schools.

But the subject, although important, didn't get much attention until one of the governors, Bill Clinton, became President. He assigned Vice President Al Gore to reinvent the federal government. Earlier this month, Clinton and Gore unveiled the result of the study, "Creating a Government That Works Better & Costs Less." Reinventing Government finally was on Page 1.

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Riordan's interest in Reinventing Government was evident in his campaign. The book he handed out while running for mayor stressed the theme.

Soon after his election, a member of the Riordan transition team talked to one of the grandmasters of the movement, Ted Gaebler, who with David Osborne wrote a book called "Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit Is Transforming the Public Sector From Schoolhouse to Statehouse, City Hall to the Pentagon." The book was a source for the Gore study group and Osborne was one of Gore's consultants.

I first met Gaebler in 1982, when California cities and counties were trying to figure out how to survive the huge revenue cuts forced by Proposition 13. My assignment was to find out how government could do more with less.

The best ideas came from the small cities. One of the most creative was the Central Valley city of Visalia, where Gaebler was then the city manager.

Visalia had a history of innovation. To save the city's California League baseball team, the Oaks, the city bought it for $7,000, thus continuing 108 years of Visalia professional baseball, retaining 15 seasonal jobs and helping the hotel and restaurant business.

When I interviewed Gaebler, the city was selling the Oaks for $30,000. Visalia had turned animal control over to the Humane Society. And Gaebler was trying to persuade fire insurance companies to help pay for running the Fire Department.

In "Reinventing Government," Gaebler and Osborne explain how the present tangle of rules and hidebound bureaucracies were created by the Progressives, early 20th-Century reformers who installed Civil Service to eliminate political patronage. Volumes of strict rules were imposed to guard against crooked contracts and payoffs. "We embrace our rules and red tape to prevent bad things from happening," the authors wrote. "But these same rules prevent good things from happening. They slow government to a snail's pace."

Gaebler and Osborne recommend relaxing Civil Service rules. Pay, promotions and layoffs should be based on performance rather than rigid job classifications. They liked a plan installed by then-Mayor Henry Cisneros of San Antonio hiring a private law firm to collect city taxes. They praised a Minnesota program in which teams of lower-level state employees proposed improvements in state government. An innovative marketing plan boosted the number of state park visitors and revenue. Another project reduced the wait for driver's licenses by half.

And Gaebler and Osborne also approve of the way some city councils have given up micromanaging departments, no longer insisting on control over every employee and expenditure.

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Unfortunately for Riordan, micromanagement is the motto of the Los Angeles City Council.

Heaven help the police captain who shifts around cops on the beats without clearing it with the local council member.

And the Civil Service rules criticized by authors Gaebler and Osborne are held in biblical regard by Los Angeles city workers. Sin in City Hall is ignoring seniority rules.

Riordan plans to meet with Gaebler. I asked Gaebler how Riordan could persuade these powerful and noisy groups to try something new. Gaebler said the mayor should avoid day-to-day combat and try to establish a culture of change in the hidebound city government.

"Riordan should give his broad imprimatur, saying, 'Obviously America wants government to change and therefore I think we should have a focus on changing Los Angeles city government,' " Gaebler said. "He should stop there and after that let 1,000 flowers bloom."

Gaebler makes it sound too easy. Any gardener knows it's hard to get 10 flowers to bloom, much less 1,000. For Riordan to change City Hall, he will have to harness support around the city. He'll have to speak in churches, synagogues, community centers and boardrooms. He'll have to carry his message to television stations and newspaper editorial boards.

He'll have to make Reinventing Government not only interesting, but of immediate importance to the lives of Angelenos.

Only then will he be able to create a force powerful enough to make anything bloom in arid old City Hall.

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