Goldsmith: Thinking Differently About Government


In a column for Governing, former Indianapoils Mayor Stephen Goldsmith analyzes how we think about government, and credits public officials who have made strides toward combating homelessness and enhancing school choice in America:

Private companies think about their "value proposition" all the time. What are we doing for our customers that make them happy to pay our price?

Government services usually don’t come with a price, but government managers should examine their value proposition just the same. In fact, revisiting "why" an agency is involved in a particular activity can be a crucial step in finding better, faster, cheaper ways of delivering value to citizens and taxpayers. While mayor of Indianapolis, I witnessed well intentioned public officials outsource an activity with the result that we became more efficient at accomplishing an obsolete process.

Getting the value proposition right unlocks better and cheaper results more than any single other thing government can do. Consider New York City’s effort to address homelessness. At one time, the city saw itself primarily in the business of providing shelter. In 2002, more than 33,000 people were living in city run shelters each month–no matter how many shelters were opened, they always seemed full.

Then Mayor Michael Bloomberg put Linda Gibbs in charge of homeless services. Upon taking over, Gibbs asked herself a simple but powerful question: What is our purpose? What is the value that we are attempting to deliver to citizens?

The answer to that question prompted an insight. Gibbs realized that her job wasn’t to run homeless shelters. Her agency existed to help people who were homeless–to reduce the need for emergency shelter, in fact.

Gibbs looked around and discovered that all her agency’s efforts were directed at running shelters. As Gibbs later observed, "We were smart enough to know how to help the clients’ underlying needs, but you put them in the shelters and suddenly the shelters became the solution, which is turning the world upside down."

Gibbs soon redefined the agency’s goal from serving the homeless to reducing homelessness and redirected resources to prevention. The new approach worked. By 2008, of those receiving this more comprehensive assistance, more than 90 percent had not reentered shelters within one year of being served. (For details about how this was accomplished see the Harvard Kennedy School case study, Overhauling New York City’s Approach to Shelter.)

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