Analysis: Beyond big or small government

"Cut!" "Keep!" "Abolish!" "Preserve!" Such is what passes for political discourse these days. The noise and nastiness building toward the looming debt-ceiling deadline will be merely the overture for a symphony of squabbles lasting, at a minimum, through 2012. In the short run, the odds are long against comity and compromise. The real question concerns what kind of America we'll be once the dust settles.

Forbidding scenarios abound. A deeply divided country -- millions plunging into misery through shredded safety nets while the wealthy few wall themselves off from the consequences of public austerity -- is the liberal nightmare. A stagnant, sclerotic America, with enterprise dulled by sky-high taxes, is the conservative counterpart. There are multiple paths to national decline.

But we envision a better path toward a different destination, an updated version of age-old American gumption and resilience. The first step on that path is to shift from sterile arguments about government's scale toward creative conversations about government's style. A big part of that conversation will concern the potential for collaborative governance -- private roles for public goals -- to generate a spacious commonwealth, whatever the size of the formal state.

The history of American government has always been most interesting when the questions concerned how rather than how much. Today's budgetary sound and fury, echoing episodes from the past, actually conceals remarkable stasis. Public spending (counting federal, state, and local) has been in the ballpark of one-third of the economy for the past four decades. It's unlikely to stray far from that benchmark in either direction for decades to come. But whether this amounts to a great society, or a grim one, will depend on how well government is able to leverage private capacity to create public value.

Public-private collaboration -- involving both for-profits and nonprofits contributing information, expertise, and legitimacy as well as money -- is already a growing part of the way America operates. After decades of decay, creative leaders in both sectors saved Central Park by assigning lead responsibility to a dynamic nonprofit called the Central Park Conservancy. The Prescription Drug User Fee Act lays out a roadmap for the Food and Drug Administration and pharmaceutical firms to jointly shepherd new drugs -- safely and speedily -- to the patients awaiting them, with user fees from firms helping to pay for the personnel and equipment required to review drugs. Colin Powell, as George W. Bush's secretary of State, aimed to turbo-charge foreign aid spending through a "Global Development Alliance" that tapped into private-sector expertise and resources to create what he called "a force multiplier that will help us with our development goals." The program is still going strong under President Obama.

Collaborative governance is growing because many crucial missions cannot be accomplished by any sector acting on its own. As we face daunting challenges -- powering the economy without fouling the planet, providing affordable health care for all, shoring up eroding infrastructure, and saving struggling schools -- it's even more important to be open to any approach that can deliver the goods. When government's will is divided and its wallet depleted, collaboration's appeal escalates.

Federal job training policy -- after testing the extremes of go-it-alone government and anything-goes business subsidies -- has settled into a middle ground where both public and private institutions play meaningful roles. The Energy Department tore up the standard contracting playbook when it engaged Kaiser-Hill to dismantle a shuttered nuclear-bomb plant, pulsing with radioactivity, just outside Denver. The novel contract liberated the company to apply its expertise, and Rocky Flats went from a death trap to a wildlife sanctuary half a century sooner than predicted, and half a billion dollars under budget. When the Coast Guard was charged with radically upgrading port security post-9/11, it wisely dodged one-size-fits-all regulations and adopted a tough but flexible approach that involves shippers and other private interests, port by port, in decisions about how best to reduce risks.

Across the country, charter schools -- representing just about every imaginable hybrid of public and private organization -- expand our collective K-12 repertoire. Some such schools are stellar, others mediocre, some flat failures. If we stand pat with the charter school status quo, to be sure, the charter movement will disappoint. But the real promise of the movement is the chance to generate lots of new models and -- with disciplined and honest governance -- to replicate the winners (including in conventional public schools) and winnow out the losers.

Collaboration doesn't always work, of course. When applied to the wrong tasks or implemented sloppily, collaborative governance can be inefficient, unaccountable, or corrupt. Political constraints on government's role in providing college financial aid led to lavish subsidies for loans issued by private banks. The arrangement proved far more complex and costly than the alternative of direct lending by the Department of Education, but it took many years (and many wasted billions) to engineer a recent reform. And as part of the same "partnership" campaign that led to Central Park's resurrection, New York City park officials were unduly deferential when big-shot singer (and big-hearted volunteer) Bette Midler declared that the top priority for poor teens was a fancy boathouse on the Harlem River.

And collaboration implies a different -- but not necessarily a diminished -- role for government itself. The public leaders responsible for orchestrating collaboration must be open-minded but tough-minded, steadfast about goals but flexible on means, at once pragmatic and principled. Ensuring that people in both sectors have the smarts, skills, and soul to get the best and avoid the worst from collaboration is a big national challenge (and our own life's work). But we think America can rise to that challenge; we've handled far worse.

Collaborative governance deploys America's diverse palette of productive potential -- public and private, for-profit and nonprofit, employee and volunteer -- to the pursuit of the common good. From de Tocqueville's day to the present, Americans' knack for cobbling together pragmatic alliances has often served to offset our weak suit of formal government. Collaboration unleashes the unpredictable resourcefulness of an entrepreneurial people to improvise fresh, flexible solutions. And it may well usher in the surprising next stage of American prosperity.

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