Public administration experiences periodic reform movements that exhibit the enthusiasm of a tent revival, but the success of the Soviet economy. Popularizers of these reforms are strong on charisma and communication. For example, two recent reform texts, Reinventing Government (RG) (Osborne and Gaebler 1992) and Banishing Bureaucracy (BB) (Osborne and Plastrik 1997), are largely written in narrative, rather than the more laborious format of many public administration texts (Goodsell 1992; Moe 1994). But these reformers and their texts are frequently weak on scholarship. As a result, they produce inconsistent recommendations that are uninformed by history. When such popularizations influence the direction of public administration practice, their errors must be examined and corrected.
Such is the case with the currently fashionable reinventing government literature. These texts appeal to the same audience as academic public administration, are used in teaching public administration as well as developing some elements of public administration theory, and may be the expressed views of people who have access to top political decision makers (details are given below). This literature has exerted an enormous influence over the language of public administration; for example, the use of "customer" language has become as ubiquitous in government as the similarly popular "quality" language is in the private sector. Also, the New Public Management movement is closely linked to this literature.
This movement, personified in its charismatic leader David Osborne, exhibits a lack of consistency within its recommendations and an ahistorical understanding of public administration (Coe 1997; Fox 1996; Goodsell 1992; Kobrak 1996; Nathan 1995; Russell and Waste 1998; Wolf 1997). It is sometimes argued that inconsistency in public administration is a sign that the field reflects the designs of the Founding Fathers (McSwite 1997; Whicker 1998). However, inconsistency within a single work or in the collective advice from a single perspective cannot be beneficial. The illogic of these recommendations renders them useless to those who would seek advice from them. However, as Herbert Simon said 50 years ago (Simon 1946) in reviewing Luther Gulick's similarly illogical recommendations (Gulick 1981), they can be used retrospectively to justify whatever action one happens to take.(1)
The remaining sections of this article examine five inconsistencies in Reinventing Government and Banishing Bureaucracy, discuss Osborne and his coauthors' claim to establish a new paradigm of government, expose five harmful or misleading reinventing government ideas, and evaluate Osborne and his coauthors' research approach. This discussion shows that the reinventing government reform movement is seriously flawed, providing both contradictory advice and advice that is outright harmful.
Simon argues: "A fact about proverbs that greatly enhances their quotability is that they almost always occur in mutually contradictory pairs. `Look before you leap!'--but `He who hesitates is lost'" (Simon 1946, 53).
His point is that such pairs provide no useful advice, but can be used to justify whatever action one prefers. In examining Gulick's principles of administration, he shows that the key information needed is how to decide which bit of advice one is to follow and that this is the information missing in early twentieth century administrative "science." Thus, such principles fulfill the same role as proverbs.
Osborne, Gaebler, and Plastrik exhibit the same tendency as Gulick. They provide conflicting advice without providing clear guidance as to when to choose which alternative. While others have asserted this conflict (Goodsell 1992; Nathan 1995), they have generally discussed conflicts at a rather high level of abstraction. For example, Goodsell says that Osborne and Gaebler are both for and against leadership. While such ambiguity is distracting, it is not fundamental in the way of providing useful advice. However, as discussed below, the inconsistency in this literature is also found at a much more concrete level. For example, they recommend that governments use competition to achieve certain goals and object to reducing duplication, yet elsewhere they condemn duplication. For each of the five topics discussed in this section--competition, privatization, decentralization, innovation, and empowerment--Osborne and his coauthors provide specific advice that contradicts, or, at minimum, is intensely difficult to reconcile with, other advice they provide. This sort of ambiguity renders their advice fundamentally inapplicable. Considering the contradictory nature of this advice, it should not be surprising that reinvention may be no more than "repackaging" of existing programs (Gianakis and Davis III 1998). There is "widespread disagreement" about reinvention objectives (Thompson and Jones 1995), or as Samantha Durst and Charldean Newell (1999) say, "We view this long list of possible actions as indicative of just how amorphous the concept of reinvention has become." Five of these inconsistencies(2) are shown in Table 1.
Table 1 Five Inconsistencies in Reinventing Government and Banishing Bureaucracy
Domain of Recommendation Competition Use competition to drive down costs and drive up quality Privatization Prefer the private sector Decentralization Shift authority to front line workers Innovation Value workers, tolerate and even favor failure as a sign of innovation Empowerment Share real power with workers Domain of Contrary recommendations Competition * Eliminate fragmentation Privatization * Make a profit. * Take an investment perspective. * Acquire businesses to meet policy goals. Decentralization * Rationalize government through analytic decision techniques. * Use raw political power. * Regionalize. * Devolve power to the public. Innovation * Pay only for results. * Create "real consequences" for failure. * Suppress "resistance." Empowerment * Use rational decision making techniques. * Establish real consequences for failure. * Shift power to communities. * Uncouple steering and rowing.
Osborne and Gaebler advocate the development of competitive government (RG 76 ff., 286-7, 307 ff.). They not only recommend competition between private sector service providers, but also between private and public sector providers (RG 76) and within government itself (RG 79), and they explicitly reject the view that "competition within government [is] `waste and duplication'" (RG 79). Osborne and Plastrik offer similar views (BB 31-2, 40, 118, 120-56, 170-84, 189-92, 307-9, 347-8). Competition allegedly improves government the same way it improves the private sector: by increasing the risk of failure for unsatisfactory work, such as work that is less efficient or effective than that supplied by others. Much of the focus, however, is on cost, "Where public and private providers have competed head-to-head ... savings are averaging 21 percent" (BB 31-2). This view is the corollary to Niskanen's familiar assertion that governments or their subordinate units will act as monopolies and aggrandize benefits to their superior officers (Niskanen 1971). Although empirical evidence is inconclusive (Blais and Dion 1991), this is a relatively orthodox and unsurprising claim.
In conflict, Osborne and Gaebler object to duplication in government agencies (RG 132-3, 187-94).(3) As an example of dysfunctional duplication in government, they say, "In 1989, the assistant secretary for health testified that there were 93 federal programs administered by 20 different agencies related to the reduction of infant mortality" (RG 187). Here they are squarely in the tradition of government reformers who have tried to reduce "irrational" duplication of government services throughout the twentieth century.
They want "competition," but oppose "duplication." As a result, the reinventor is given no useful direction for action. Should she allow government units and programs to compete with each other in order to provide the best services? Or should governmental units be rationalized to eliminate duplication? How much duplication is too much? What considerations should lead to streamlining and which to competition? Despite their extensive discussion of competition, Osborne, Gaebler, and Plastrik do not clarify this matter.
To Privatize or Not to Privatize
The contradiction between competition and streamlining government is precisely the diametric opposition described by Simon. The conflict over privatization is more complex. Osborne, Gaebler, and Plastrik sometimes recommend privatization, as with denationalization of businesses in socialist economies (BB 22-3, 49 ff., 76-89), but other times they recommend its opposite, as when government ownership of business fulfills objectives related to slowing development and mitigating against traffic congestion (RG 208-9). Osborne and Gaebler also recommend load shedding (RG 86) and "catalyzing" the private sector (RG 26, 28, 293) as methods of achieving public objectives through the private sector. Chapter 3 of Reinventing Government emphasizes the use of competition, either through the private sector or by emulation of the private sector, as a means of driving down costs and increasing effectiveness. Despite protesting that reinventing government is not "synonymous with privatization" (BB 11), Osborne and Plastrik enthusiastically describe governmental reform in the United Kingdom and New Zealand in a manner that implies that privatization is the final step of reform (BB 22-3, 49 ff., 67 ff., 89, 301). For example, they quote Margaret Thatcher, "I cannot rule out that after a period of years Agencies, like other Government activities, may be suitable for privatization" (BB 301). In any case, criteria recommended by Osborne, Gaebler, and Plastrik (RG 343-8, BB 110-11) clearly show that the public sector should defer to the private sector where private goods are produced.
However, Osborne and Gaebler also recommend that the public sector turn its attention to governmental …