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Advice for the Winners: Make Government Work

CONGRATULATIONS. The voters are angry, and now you have a chance to do something about it. Whether newly elected or an incumbent who survived the ``throw 'em out'' mood at the polls, you are serving the most angry and cynical electorate since the depression. Voters are fed up with government, and they expect you to make it work. Here are suggestions for doing that and keeping your job.

First, understand what voters want. They want to know that their tax dollars aren't wasted and that they get something for their money. They expect you and your colleagues to improve education, deliver health care, reduce crime, and eliminate welfare dependency while spending less.

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That's a tall (some would say unreasonable) order. Which brings us to the next step: Engage the citizenry. Enter into a conversation about what they want done, what role government can play, and what role other institutions, such as foundations and community associations, must play. We all want to improve education, but government can only do so much. We need more and better teachers, for example. Improving education also requires involved parents and more classroom volunteers; public and private health institutions to ensure that children begin school healthy and ready to learn; civic and religious groups to get children's books to poor parents of preschool children; and volunteers to give literacy training to parents who can't read to their children.

Join with your colleagues and build a process for creating state or local goals. Use town meetings, public hearings, radio talk shows, or satellite video conferences to ask citizens what they want done. Set benchmarks for measuring success. The Oregon government produced Oregon Benchmarks with the involvement of over 7,000 citizens. This document outlines 272 specific targets for accomplishments, prioritizing a handful as urgent.

AS you and your constituents figure out what government should do, turn quickly and aggressively to budget reform. The budget is the most powerful tool for transforming government. It's the engine that drives every function of government. From Florida to Texas to Iowa to Oregon, state and local governments are linking the budget to desired outcomes. They are estimating the value and costs of achieving each outcome. By monitoring performance, you will be able to measure progress and tell voters the actual costs.

Next, end stifling ``micro-management'' - the practice of dictating every spending decision in legislation. Give public officials flexibility in how they target funds. Set goals for public agencies and demand accountability, but let government managers determine how best to get the job done. Allow them to address changing needs by transferring funds from one program to another. And unleash creativity in government. Most government employees are bright, hard working, and dedicated. They know how to make things work better, but they are hamstrung by rigid procedures and rules.

Finally, fix every place where citizens meet their government face to face. If it takes three hours to renew a driver's license, make it half an hour. If it takes half a day to visit a public health clinic, make it one hour. In Austin, Texas, the government cut the average visit to a public health clinic from several hours to one hour by studying the ``process'' of the visit. When routine interactions with government are tolerable or even pleasant, people are more likely to begin believing in government again.

Finally, don't get mired in arguments over big government versus small.

Focus on what people want: quality government at an affordable price. Make strides toward that and your next election will be about change and progress. Don't, and you and your fellow incumbents will face anger among the electorate reminiscent of the days of tar and feathers. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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