Texas Conference of Urban Counties — December 2011

[This is a work in progress, and will be edited until after the conference at Long Pines.]

You are at my blog, www.government-reform.info. My resume is under “About” at the upper right hand corner of this page.

Please don’t bother to register or comment — I’m being spammed so often that I just delete all messages concerning the blog. But feel free to email me at robert@knisely.info with comments or questions.

I. The “live” version of my Governing Magazine column is HERE and here: http://www.governing.com/blogs/bfc/how-many-governments-do-we-need-county-consolidation.html  Some of the links are worth exploring.

And here’s a “live” list of my Governing columns:

What Government Can (and Can’t) Learn from Steve Jobs

How Many Governments Do We Need?

The Secret to StateStat’s Success

GAO and the Department of Redundancy

Breaking the Tyranny of Rules

In Search of “What Works”

Homelessness: Think Strategically, Act Humbly

Not Being There

Data to the People – A Tour of DC

II. One of the best critiques of the National Performance Review was written in 1996 by Professor Henry Mintzberg of McGill University in Canada, and published in the Harvard Business Review. I recommend it highly. In it, Professor Mintzberg took us to task for focusing on “the customer” and his/her relationship to government. We were always talking about making government work better for “the customer.” He said that there are FOUR roles that each citizen has with respect to government, and that government must respond differently to each. He listed (a) Customer, (b) Client, (c) Citizen, and (d) Subject.

The easiest example is Subject: when the highway patrolman stops you for speeding, you’re not his Customer – you’re a Subject, and you better act that way! Customers have a short term relationship with government (think visitors to a national park), while Clients have a longer term relationship (think welfare recipient). Another way to distinguish them is that government should give Customers what that WANT, while government is charged with giving Clients what they NEED.

And, of course, as Citizens we are the bosses of government – the stakeholders. That’s not exactly like Customers either!

And since the relationships are different, government needs to focus on WHICH aspect of an individual is primary in a given interaction, and behave accordingly. The article is available from the Harvard Business Review, but you’ll have to pay for it.

III. When I worked in the Pentagon, I learned about the “tooth-to-tail” ratio. If it takes ten soldiers in supply, cooking, weapons repair, etc., to keep one soldier on the front line, then the “tooth-to-tail” ratio is one to ten. What we like in my Marine Corps is that the Navy supplies us with “bullets, beans, and bandaids,” so the Marines’ tooth-to-tail ratio is kept very low, and we can stay focused on the battle.

One of the advantages of consolidation, as well as of interagency agreements, etc., is the opportunity to improve your organization’s tooth-to-tail ratio. It’s NOT an opportunity to reduce the number of police or sheriff’s deputies, or EMS workers, or tax collectors for that matter. But you may be able to make do with fewer procurement specialists, human resource staff, information technology staff, etc. It should be a goal of governmental rethinking and redesign to IMPROVE the tooth-to-tail ratio at all levels of government.

IV. There’s a new book coming out in January, “Collaborate or Perish,” by William Bratton and Zach Tumin. During his long career Bratton was chief of police in Boston, New York, and Los Angeles. He was a remarkably effective public servant, and one of his conclusions is that we need more collaboration (Duh!). One of the strongest arguments for consolidation and cooperation at all levels of government is the improvement in collaboration that should, and will, occur. I have not read the book, and (full disclosure) I know both Bill and Zach. I’d still recommend taking a look at it .

As you may know, on the east and west coasts we talk about organizational stovepipes. Here in the Midwest you talk about silos. SAME THING! We can’t even collaborate on using the same term for the same problem!

V. Two of the tools now in heavy use in private sector consulting are Business Process Modeling and the Capability Maturity Model. They are documented on the Internet, and are both worth a long look. You cannot hope to do Ken Miller’s Extreme Government Makeover without Business Process Modeling. And if you want a good score card for your organization, take a good long look at the Capability Maturity Model (NOT just as used in software development).

VI. As you can tell from my resume, I was totally unable to hold a job. Fortunately, the Federal government paid me every other Tuesday whether I needed it or not. It was a very interesting career – I learned early on the value of an active “Rolodex” – an almost obsolete term, I know. I learned that eating lunch with the people in one’s own office is a good idea most of the time, but finding new friends in the same line of work for the occasional lunch is educational, inspiring – and often provides leads to another lilypad when jumping is called for.

VI. Illinois and Pennsylvania together have almost 11,000 units of local government, while Alaska and Hawaii have fewer than 200! How much of that is evidence of simple accretion? Will Hawaii have 5,000 units in 200 years, assuming it’s above sea level? What accounts for these disparities?

The figures on the units of government are taken from the 2007 Census of Governments. There’s a table HERE and here: http://www.census.gov/govs/cog/GovOrgTab03ss.html

Two more related Bureau of the Census files are here:



I found two interesting articles on the proliferation of units of government:

Illinois 2006 article: http://www.ioc.state.il.us/index.cfm/linkservid/8AD8D8FC-F769-40D4-ACE81A349091FB2A/showMeta/0/

Michigan 2010 article: http://www.senate.michigan.gov/sfa/Publications/Notes/2010Notes/NotesSum10es.pdf

VII. ALL of the documentation of the National Performance Review is stored in Texas! The main link is HERE and here: http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/npr/library/review.html

I particularly recommend the report titled “Rethinking Program Design.” While I didn’t write it, I dragooned several really bright people into forming a team and set them free. The parallels between the report and my blog are obvious!

VIII. The Thomas Jefferson quote appears on Panel Four of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington. Jefferson wrote it in a letter to one Samuel Kercheval, on July 12th 1816. I’m hoping our institutions advance more swiftly than I’ve recently observed!

IX. Here are the live links to the sites listed under “Innovation ‘Search and Rescue’ in the Powerpoint presentation:

Harvard’s Government Innovators Network , HERE and here: http://www.innovations.harvard.edu/

Governing Magazine’s Better, Faster, Cheaper blog, HERE and here: http://www.governing.com/blogs/bfc/

Governing Magazine’s Management Insights blog, HERE and here: http://www.governing.com/columns/mgmt-insights

The GovManagementDaily newsletter. Sign up at www.govmanagement.com/eletters.html

X. And here are live links to Everett Rogers and the Diffusion of Innovations. Some of you will be familiar with the terms “radical innovator” and “early adopter.” Those are from Rogers’ work. (If ALL of you are familiar with his work, I apologize. I’ve found it both useful and fascinating.)

Everett Rogers bio

The diffusion of innovations (theory)

The Diffusion of Innovation – Fifth Edition (book)

XI. The six examples of innovation I gave were all from Harvard’s Government Innovator’s Network. The preliminary application asks for two sentence descriptions of the innovations. I had to cannibalize them for the slides, so here they are unaltered:


The FUNDERS GROUP coordinates the investments of multiple governmental entities and philanthropies. It establishes cross-jurisdictional goals and work plans for our homelessness system and creates a single grant application, award and reporting process through which agencies are ensured the capital, operating and service funding needed for each project.


The Cities of Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach, and Oceano Community Services District, CA, have taken a systematic approach to improve operating efficiencies and reduce budget expenditures to deliver Fire and Emergency services. This process provided for a smooth political transition with regard to full consolidation of Fire and Emergency services.


In October 1998 and July 2002, the  San Antonio area experienced record amounts of rain; resulting floods caused many fatalities and approximately $1 billion in damage. Following these two events, government leaders united in an effort to provide improved regional flood control and management of storm water and water quality.


The Congress of Neighboring Communities (CONNECT) is a forum for local government cooperation among the City of Pittsburgh and its 35 neighboring municipalities. In a region often cited as the most fragmented in the country, this alliance is exemplifying meaningful cooperation between city and suburbs that is virtually nonexistent elsewhere.


The Florida Benchmarking Consortium (FBC) is an intra-state collaboration of Florida local governments seeking to improve the delivery of local government services through the use of performance measurement data and proven benchmarking tools and techniques. The Florida Benchmarking Consortium takes performance measurement to the next level.


The towns of  Newbury, New London, and Sunapee joined forces to create a novel assessing solution that would benefit all three towns. They combined financial resources and the mutual interests of the towns that surround Lake Sunapee to create a regional assessing district employed by all three communities.

XII. You might find the work of Stafford Beer interesting, especially his Viable System Model. It has colored my thinking for years.

XIII. You might find the work of Ross Ashby interesting, especially Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety. I think that Ashby’s Law helps explain a lot of what’s wrong with government today. One example: at no time during Prohibition did the Federal government employ more than 1500 enforcement officers. How was THAT supposed to work? I address the same issue in my blog piece about “Phase Four Souvlaki.”

XIV. I have NO CLUE about how the world of information technology will change the Federal government in ten years, much less county government. I started with computers in the Pentagon, where Lieutenant Commanders were pushing grocery carts full of “computer output” from place to place. I now store most important information in “the cloud.” Along the way, I headed the US Delegation to the First World Conference on “Informatics” in Government, held in Florence, Italy, in October, 1972. Talk about wonderful trips! And I still have no clue about the world of 2020. But I love Skyping with my grandkids in Boston and Santa Cruz.

XV. I invented the Wart/Hopper Index in the 1990’s as a means of encouraging risk taking among the new employees of the Bureau of Transportation Statistics at DOT (our motto: “BTS: Without Transportation, we’re just BS!”). Our initial six year funding was $90m, and our second tranche was $186m. That’s considered a “win” in Washington. One of my sharpest employees was Bob Zarnetske, who showed up early this year as a political appointee, the Director the New England Regional Office of the General Services Administration. I was in Boston visiting my new granddaughter, Lyla Rose Geisel, and went to his swearing-in ceremony. He used the Wart/Hopper Index as part of his speech to the Regional Office staff. His speech is HERE and here: http://www.gsa.gov/portal/content/228829

XVI. And last, as a warning for institutions reluctant to change, and not observant of the world in which they operate, here’s one more story. Last summer my wife gave me an iPad for my birthday. I wanted a simple (read: cheap) sleeve to keep it protected, and remembered the Tyvek mailing envelopes at the Post Office. SO, one day I went into a local post office, picked one up, and got in line. There’s always a line. While I was waiting, I looked over the envelope. In small type I read:


I sighed, left the line, put the envelope back, and walked out. I went next door, where there was a FedEx office, hoping they had the same type of mailing envelope. I walked in, found just what I was looking for, picked it up, and caught the eye of the clerk. There was no line. I asked, “How much?” and he said “Just take it.” If you’ve been following the news, you’ll know which organization is in trouble. And not just from labor costs.

XVII. Please bear in mind the Robert Kennedy quote as you pursue improving governments. We need to focus on things that never were, and ask “why not?” He never claimed the quote as original, by the way. It’s actually from George Bernard Shaw’s play, Back to Methuselah. Even the Kennedys were willing to be “early adopters” on occasion!

I had a WONDERFUL three days, and I thank you so much for inviting me! I knew I didn’t know anything about county government, but I’d NO IDEA how much there is to know. Best of luck going forward.

Bob Knisely

Comments are closed.