Hope, challenges seen in government redesign efforts

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After holding a series of public meetings around the state, lawmakers, local officials and nonprofit executives agree on one thing: Minnesotans want better, more efficient, cost-effective government.

“Overwhelming majorities of Minnesotans made it crystal clear: they believe we really do need to get more for their money,” said Bush Foundation President Peter Hutchinson.

Hutchinson and other testifiers briefed House State Government Finance Committee members on the latest efforts toward government reform and redesign. The committee took no action.

During the legislative interim, lawmakers have been seeking public input on ways to improve government services. Local officials have hosted their own forums, and nonprofits have conducted public polling on the issue.

Reform proponents say Minnesota is transitioning into what they call “the new normal” — an era of perpetual challenges marked by an aging population, a declining tax base and an increasing demand for public services. To cope, they say the state and local governments will have to get creative and learn from the private sector.

Jeff Sparks, executive director of the Association of Minnesota Counties, said that redesigning government will necessitate experimentation. He said public officials should look beyond jurisdictional boundaries and embrace innovation, even if it sometimes leads to failures.

“Redesign is a goal that we all have, but it can be a goal that can be difficult to achieve,” Sparks said, adding, “When we attempt to innovate, there will be failures.”

Beltrami County Administrator Tony Murphy said policymakers need to consider an “outcome-based” approach that emphasizes measurable results and allows officials to collaborate and be creative about problem solving.

“Our problem is that we continue to be locked in our silos and our philosophies of service delivery,” Murphy said.

Committee members were also briefed on some state-level reform efforts that are already underway. These include:

  • A dependent eligibility audit for state employees’ health insurance: an official from Minnesota Management & Budget said that sometime in early 2012, roughly 30,000 state employees will have to produce documentation that proves their dependents’ eligibility to be enrolled in the State Employees Group Insurance Program. MMB is currently in the process of contracting with a vendor to do the audit.
  • A pay-for-performance pilot project: MMB Commissioner Jim Schowalter said the state is running into some legal and logistical obstacles to implementing a $10 million pilot program that would pay nonprofits for social work that leads to measurable cost savings to the state. He said the current funding mechanism involves appropriation bonds, and suggested it might be easier just to use a normal appropriation.
  • Tax compliance and analytics: Department of Revenue Assistant Commissioner Matt Massman said an $82.3 million tax compliance and analytics initiative included in this summer’s budget deal is off to a slow start, but he’s hopeful it will produce the desired amount of revenue for the state. “I’m nervous, but I’m still standing by the $82 million,” he said.