With the immediate budget crisis over but Minnesota's long-term fiscal challenges very much unresolved, we're likely to keep on hearing about public-sector "redesign." It's an essential ingredient in Minnesota's effort to stabilize its finances.
As former Gov. Arne Carlson says: We can't just cut our way out of this problem; we can't just tax our way out; and we can't count on growing our way out. We have to do different.
And we can.
A simple mental image, of a kind of black box, captures the discussion about every big public system -- education, health care, transportation. Into the hopper on one side of the box we pour money, people, time, skills. We turn the crank, and out from the other side come public-service results.
People want you to believe there are only two choices: Put more into the hopper and you'll get more out. Put in less and you'll get less out.
Inside that box, though, is a mechanism that turns resources into results -- efficiently or not, effectively or not. Redesign is about changing the mechanism inside the box.
Minnesota has actually done a lot of this. We just haven't called it "redesign." And haven't kept at it. Now we have to.
What's inside the box is largely the mechanism of "service delivery." We see a problem, then we ask government to get some expert to fix it. There are other ways. There are alternative forms of service. And there are alternatives to service. For example:
•Stop doing what doesn't need to be done. On the Iron Range, municipal crews used to plow private gardens. That stopped.
•Prevention. Keep problems from arising and you reduce the need for service. Prevent forest fires. Don't litter. Do maintenance to avoid costly replacement. Health care is full of opportunities. Eat sensibly. Exercise. The campaign to discourage smoking took off when Will Jones, a Tribune restaurant columnist, began writing: "If you can smoke in the air I breathe, I can spit in your soup."
•Utilize to the full. Almost all fire departments in Minnesota are volunteer. People work at their regular jobs until the bell rings, then head for the fire. The relatively few full-time departments make emergency medical runs in between fire calls.
•Go downscale. Plow snow rather than remove snow; melt snow rather than plow snow. Have 'meter maids' rather than sworn officers write parking tickets. Hospice care rather than hospital care. Substitute technology for labor: We now have automated payment in parking ramps.
•Supported self-help. Most of us today can't afford domestic servants: cooks, butlers, chauffeurs, gardeners, maids, seamstresses. So now the system is to buy materials, tools, designs and know-how and "do it yourself."
•Mutual help. People have always helped each other. Babysitting. Watching a neighbor's house when they're away. Driving people around. There are support groups of all kinds.
•Volunteering. This is service, but unpaid. Tutor kids. Help at the hospital or library. Pick up litter along the highway. Serve on boards. Retirees are a great resource.
•Contracting. This is service: The advantage is to be able to terminate for poor performance. And to have multiple suppliers.
Education is loaded with potential for redesign. It has been thought of as a service -- the teacher "delivering education." But we can bring in early childhood to help prevent failure. We can get students helping other students (peer teaching). And we can use digital technology to make learning a system of supported self-help, individualizing instruction so students move at their own pace.
The examples make it clear that redesign is possible. How do we get it to happen in the public sector?
It isn't effective to order organizations to do what they have no incentive to do. Better to structure systems so their organizations have reasons and opportunities to do these good things on their own initiative -- in their own interest and from their own resources.
That strategy has one central idea -- to move these big systems out of the public-utility model. Decentralize and delegate; create more choices for public bodies; put more decisionmaking authority in the hands of citizens and consumers.
Incentives work. Again, consider education.
By the late 1980s, Minnesota legislators were frustrated with the district system not producing the change they wanted -- with districts slow, for example, to let students move early into college. In 1985, the state let students make the decision themselves to move to a postsecondary institution. Once districts saw students leaving, they responded quickly with college-in-the-school programs of their own.
What if we set out to increase the number of young people moving through high school and college in six years rather than eight? Today we have about 150,000 juniors and seniors, on whom we spend each year about $10,000.
Multiply $10,000 by 150,000 and you get a big number.
Redesign implies change. Change is never easy. Institutions will fight to protect their comfortable, traditional ways. They will tell us we should simply "put more in" to avoid "cuts in service."
But as a wide variety of groups now agree: Doing different is better than doing less. Redesign is not the whole solution. But it is a part of it.
Ted Kolderie is a former executive director of the Citizens League, senior fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and Star Tribune journalist. He has been working on public-service redesign for decades, currently with the Center for Policy Studies.