Charting a better path

Geoffrey Lawrence

It’s not often that the words “innovation” and “government” coincide.  But one idea that should be considered in Carson City would put Nevada state government firmly on the path to efficiency-enhancing innovation.

The charter-agency approach — developed in Iowa under the leadership of former Democratic governor Tom Vilsack and winner of Harvard University’s “Innovations in American Government Award” — changes the culture within state offices, incentivizing workers to think entrepreneurially about delivering the best results at the lowest cost.

As Vilsack’s former management director, Jim Chrisinger, put it to lawmakers in Carson City recently, the approach offered state workers and administrators a “new deal.”

No longer would they be evaluated by their strict adherence to bureaucratic rules.  Instead, results would be the sole criterion — leaving staff free to think outside the box and develop new ways to deliver those results.

The “Charter Agency“ framework Vilsack and Iowa lawmakers developed was an alternative set of governing rules that agency directors could adopt.  If they did, they gained the power to hire or dismiss employees, purchase new computers or other equipment, and to outsource certain agency functions as they saw fit — all without going through central purchasing or personnel departments and encountering bureaucratic delays.

To ensure accountability, lawmakers developed comprehensive performance criteria the agencies would have to meet. Directors who failed to meet those criteria could face dismissal.

For state agencies the best part was that if they met their performance goals without using their entire appropriation, half of the savings would be theirs — to use on additional capital expenditures, employee training or even employee bonuses. The remaining half would revert to the state’s general fund.

This meant that state workers could see a direct benefit in their paycheck at the end of the year if they developed innovative new ways to work together and deliver quality services at bottom dollar.  It didn’t take long before this “new deal” began to bear fruit for both public employees and the taxpayers they served.

Not only did Charter Agencies quickly begin saving Iowa taxpayers money, but performance improved across the board.  The Department of Natural Resources reduced turnaround time for air-quality construction permits from 62 days to six and, in six months, eliminated 600 backlogged applications.  Turnaround times for wastewater construction fell from 28 months to 4.5 months and, for landfill permits, from 187 days to 30 days — all without compromising environmental standards.

Other departments adopting the charter-agency framework — including Corrections, Revenue and Human Services — saw similar improvements, notwithstanding agreeing to an immediate 10 percent appropriations cut to help balance the state budget.

In Nevada, charter agencies would be the next step along the performance-based budgeting path that lawmakers and Gov. Brian Sandoval began in 2011.  It’s a bipartisan solution that would allow Nevada to weather stagnant revenue growth while upholding quality services for its citizens.

So here’s to innovation.

Geoffrey Lawrence is deputy policy director at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit