Cities, Cities, Public Safety, Health, Education Housing, Infrastructure & Transportation, Incarceration, Prisoner Reentry, Serious Mental Illness, Pre K-12

Beyond Reinventing Government 21st Century Reform Agenda


By Michael Hendrix Director, State & Local Policy, MI

Despite the growing bill for public services—especially roads, schools, and public safety—government today is rarely efficient or effective or accountable. It is surely no coincidence that trust in government is declining. While roads and bridges in disrepair, failing schools, and dysfunctional criminal-justice systems are often laid at the feet of the federal government,  state and local governments actually manage many of the public services that citizens use. City halls and state capitols often can have a greater impact on day-to-day life than Washington can.    

The primary reason for failing public services is that government bureaucracies are not results-oriented. By and large, they concentrate on administrative process and not the material results of their efforts. If any of these policy failings are to be addressed, government must reorient itself. It must focus on serving its primary customer—the citizen. That, in turn, means paying for performance, making the most and best use of existing resources, and embracing innovation in essential services.  

More than a quarter-century has passed since the publication of Reinventing Government, the bestselling book by Ted Gaebler and David Osborne. Their call for applying lessons from the private sector to the public sector sparked a newfound interest in more entrepreneurial and data-driven forms of management—particularly by measuring outcomes, sparking competition, and insisting on accountability.

The intervening years have shown their lessons to be helpful and desirable, but public leaders should not stop there. Metrics alone are no substitute for judgment, top-down accountability must be met with bottom-up buy-in, and competition is easily gamed. 

To restore trust among citizens, the heads of state and local agencies need to build and own their goals from the bottom up (such as by empowering customer-facing public employees to identify problems and formulate solutions through public feedback), develop strategies to meet them, and measure results for accountability.  

This booklet presents a playbook for achieving the efficient, effective, and accountable provision of social services, public safety, criminal justice, and transportation. The ideas are drawn largely from Manhattan Institute analyses of New York City, but they are applicable across the country. Some of the research highlights unique successes that New York has had in implementing results-oriented policy; many highlight failures.  

Under New York mayor Bill de Blasio, the average stay in homeless shelters has surged from 293 days to 383 days in the past five years, even as spending has increased. The reason, Stephen Eide argues, is that the de Blasio administration eliminated performance benchmarks for shelters that had been established by his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg’s program created an incentive for private shelters not simply to provide temporary housing with public dollars, but to find ways to permanently place single adults and families into their own housing. Absent the proper incentives, private, nonprofit service providers can be just as wasteful as the worst public bureaucracies; measuring their performance and rewarding only the good performers with more business is crucial. 

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) is the largest public-housing authority in the United States. NYCHA administers more than 16% of all public units in America, housing a population larger than Minneapolis. Yet Howard Husock finds that wait times for those seeking residence are long and turnover is low. Many of the city’s poorest find affordable public units to be effectively inaccessible. Those who do manage to find an apartment end up, more often than not, in dilapidated buildings. To achieve a more equitable outcome in the provision of public housing, policymakers should give priority to the city’s underserved communities and ensure that the size of units correctly match individual and family needs. More broadly, city housing policy should “adopt policies that encourage a higher rate of turnover, particularly among tenants whose rising incomes place them firmly in the middle class.” 

If public housing is a strain on local government services, public transit is where it buckles in New York City. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) own data show it to be a model for cost overruns and schedule delays. Nicole Gelinas believes that the MTA should set its priorities straight: investing in the better buses and subways that the system’s ridership needs the most, rather than devoting outsize resources to commuter rail. So-called design-build contracts, which assign responsibility to a single contractor for designing and constructing a project, may help in out-of-control spending. Capturing the rise in real-estate values from this infrastructure investment could also help better finance the MTA’s continued upkeep and expansion, already burdened by rising debt-service and retiree-benefit costs. 

The de Blasio administration spends $800 million a year on its ThriveNYC mental-health plan. But as D.J. Jaffe demonstrates, the plan prioritizes treating those with conditions like anxiety over those with severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia. Rather than being offered the treatment they need, individuals with serious mental illnesses are offloaded onto the city’s streets and eventually—due to the behavioral problems associated with untreated mental illness—its jails. This situation is needlessly expensive and inhumane; it also poses a significant threat to public safety. From the standpoint of public health and safety, government needs to focus on the specific areas where it can make the greatest difference: treating the most severely afflicted individuals. 

Policing is one crucial area where New York City government shines. Through smart, focused policing, New York has experienced more than two decades of sustained, dramatic drops in crime. Today, the NYPD and other police departments are exploring new ways to reduce crime even further. Journalist and scholar David Black shows how they use Big Data to anticipate future crime and better allocate police resources. This strategy, known as predictive policing, takes officers off potentially unnecessary patrol routines and gives them time to engage in their communities more deeply—a critical and frequently overlooked aspect of law enforcement.

One vexing social problem, often overlooked, is how former prisoners can become law-abiding and functioning members of society.  More than half of the offenders released from prisons are once again incarcerated within five years. State and local prisoner reentry programs are often of little help; their complex bureaucracies are rarely coordinated or held accountable. Howard Husock and Dean Ball draw on the experience of the Newark Prisoner Reentry Initiative, a partnership between the Manhattan Institute and Newark’s then-mayor, Cory Booker, to suggest that reentry policy should be focused predominantly on placing ex-offenders in a steady job. These reforms, proven by real-world experience in Newark, include eliminating regulatory barriers to employment and reorienting parole systems to focus on helping ex-offenders find work rather than on punishing them for minor violations of the rules.  

Good public schools and teachers can dramatically improve the lives of their students. Yet it is difficult—often purposely so—to know which teachers are effective and which teachers are not. Marcus Winters believes that value-added modeling offers one way to see how much a single teacher contributes to a student’s progress over time. Experience has shown that periodically evaluating teacher performance throughout their careers offers them valuable feedback while helping schools identify ineffective teachers. School districts that have used value-added modeling found that it is a useful predictor of teacher performance over time. There is no single change that can magically reform failing schools and raise student achievement. But if New York City and other jurisdictions were to stop granting “automatic” tenure and start factoring teacher quality into their employment decisions, value-added modeling could help. 

Protecting children from parental abuse and neglect is one crucial public service with a checkered record. Child welfare research has been slowly making progress in identifying evidence-based tools to help child welfare social workers, but government has not always been helpful. Richard Gelles notes the parade of blue-ribbon commissions and agency reorganizations that have done little to protect children but a lot to increase funding and staff. “The real problem dogging the U.S. child welfare system,” says Gelles, “is not insufficient funds but insufficient flexibility in how the existing funds may be used.”

As Americans pay more and more for public services, they naturally have come to expect better results. When better results are not forthcoming—and, indeed, when the services deteriorate—trust in government declines. Paying for performance and demanding accountability are a means to the end of serving citizens and fostering trust in community. These are the lessons of reinventing government that should animate city leaders in the 21st century.



Benchmarking Shelter Performance in New York: A Modest Proposal for Easing the City’s Homeless Crisis
Stephen Eide | MI Report | March 8, 2018

How New York’s Public Housing Fails the City’s New Poor
Howard Husock | MI Issue Brief | October 3, 2017

Not By Money Alone: Rethinking the MTA’s Infrastructure
Nicole Gelinas | MI Issue Brief | November 13, 2017

Our Insane Mental-Health System
D.J. Jaffe | MI Commentary | New York Daily News, October 18, 2017

How a Jobs-Driven Approach to Prisoner Reentry Can Reduce Recidivism
Howard Husock, Dean Ball | MI Report | October 2017

Transforming Tenure: Using Value-Added Modeling to Identify Ineffective Teachers
Marcus A. Winters | MI Report | August 31, 2012

Creating an Effective Child Welfare System
Richard Gelles | Book Chapter | 2017

Creating an Effective Child Welfare System
David Black | City Journal | Winter 2016 Issue




Are you interested in supporting the Manhattan Institute’s public-interest research and journalism? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and its scholars’ work are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).