MICHAEL DUKAKIS got into trouble as the Democrats' presidential candidate four years ago by insisting that the election was not about ideology but about competence.
Well, yes and no; American politics is less ideological than that of many countries. What Dukakis seemed not to understand were the emotional issues, the "cultural" issues that are such a force in presidential politics.
Remember the flap over pledging allegiance to the flag? Dukakis should have found a way to wrap himself in the flag as firmly as George Bush did, but to say, "Yes, I pledge allegiance to the flag - voluntarily. Part of what makes this country great is that everyone pledging is doing it voluntarily - no one is forced or shamed into pledging."
But he didn't say this, and in the end, the Dukakis campaign nearly gave competence a bad name.
And now at a time when there seems to be no shortage of problems facing the United States, but not much of a consensus on how to deal with them, either, competence may be ripe for a comeback. Trickle-down Reaganomics never really reached South-Central Los Angeles and its counterparts across the country. But the traditional solutions of liberalism are not seen as shining successes, either, and their advocates seem weary.
There must be a third way, many are saying. In their new book, "Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit Is Transforming the Public Sector," David Osborne and Ted Gaebler make the case for what they define as that third way.
Entrepreneurial government is not government for profit, but it does focus on using resources in new ways to maximize productivity and effectiveness. Competition among service providers (e.g., private waste management companies in competition with municipal sanitation departments) is a good thing, but Osborne and Gaebler are careful to distinguish between providing services and taking responsibility for having the services provided. They part company with ideology-driven privatizers who want government t o do as little as possible.
As the authors put it in one of their most important aphorisms, entrepreneurial governments steer rather than row.
Such governments also empower communities rather than just provide services; encourage competition; are driven by their mission, not their rules; fund outcomes rather than inputs; focus on earning, not just spending; serve their "customers"; invest in prevention, not cure; decentralize; and seek solutions through the marketplace rather than government programs.
"Reinventing Government" is full of success stories where entrepreneurial impulses have been given free rein in city halls and state capitals around the United States: A recreation department, for instance, that was able to turn its men's softball league into a profit center by raising fees and encouraging corporate sponsorship and thereby was able to fund a girls' softball program and recreation for the elderly.
"But isn't all this just warmed-over Republicanism?" David Osborne was asked when he appeared earlier this month at a conference sponsored by the Council for Excellence in Government at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. The council members (or "principals," as they are called), former government officials now in the private sector, seemed mostly to have already read their guest's book. Osborne denied that he and his partner have ever been Republicans; in fact, he himself has been involved with the Clinton campaign and has also advised Lawton Chiles, the Democratic governor of Florida.
But Osborne has some harsh analysis of both major parties: The Democrats, he complains, are rooted in the period 1930 to 1970. The Republicans are even worse: stuck in the 1920s, in his view.
Bureaucracy, now much derided as unresponsive and inefficient, was at one time considered a good thing. Civil service, rules and all, was once the Progressives' solution to the evils of robber barons and political machines, patronage hiring and kickbacks.
That government has been "reinvented" before, as it was between 1900 and 1940, is a strong argument that it can be reinvented again.
It is a leap from cost-effective garbage collection to the sense of common purpose that has galvanized the nation at great moments in its history. It is hard to imagine that the United States can retain any sort of leadership role in the world as an atomized society with each citizen a satisfied "customer." The "public thing" needs work.
But as the nation gropes toward a new consensus, a new agenda for collective action, the examples of entrepreneurial government can be a great help.