Reinventing Reinventing Government

At Ten Miles Square today there’s an important post from Anne Kim about a new study of public opinion by the Brookings Institution’s Paul Light. The subject is attitudes towards government, and the alarming news–though not very surprising given gridlock and polarization–is that a shrinking minority of Americans believe in “reinventing government” experiments to make the public sector steadily more efficient.

Light’s research points toward a dramatic and critical shift in public beliefs about what’s wrong with government. His findings also mean restoring public trust in government now demands a more radical cure: a top-to-bottom rethinking of not just how it delivers services – but why. “Reinventing government” itself needs reinvention.

Using public opinion data, Light grouped Americans into broad categories based on their perceptions of government reform. In 1997, 43 percent of Americans were what Light calls “reinventors.” While these Americans believed government to be inefficient, they still agreed with its basic priorities and supported its programs. And because they were the plurality, the 1990s focus on efficiency was substantively and politically effective.

Today, the plurality are “dismantlers” – those who disagree with the government’s priorities, want to cut back federal programs and likely sympathize with the Tea Party’s goals. Meanwhile, the share of reinventors has dropped by almost half, to just 28 percent of Americans. Even more troubling, Americans abandoning the reinventors’ camp include such electorally significant groups as seniors, Hispanics and the middle class.

Now there is a progressive brand of dynamite aimed at significant changes in government’s priorities and structure, and Light appears to agree that the “reinventors” need a sharper and more radical edge. I’d add from the perspective of someone initially enthusiastic about but later disappointed in the Clinton-Gore “Rego” effort that it wound up being superficial and too focused on paper efficiency savings rather than improvements in how government thought about and delivered services. It’s time for something better. And it’s also time for liberal disparagers of “Rego” to recognize that without something happening to rekindle faith in government, the wreckers will eventually have their way.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.