Group government

Interview | Policy reformer Steve Goldsmith on why private organizations should deliver public services

Issue: "Foster care's future," March 5, 2005

Steve Goldsmith, the innovative mayor of Indianapolis from 1992 to 1999, spends two days a week teaching government at Harvard and the rest of the week in Washington. He headed up the domestic policy team during George W. Bush's 1999-2000 campaign but has not been involved with the White House in any major way since then.

Mr. Goldsmith is co-author (with William D. Eggers) of Governing by Network: The New Shape of the Public Sector (Brookings, 2004). The essential argument is that government officials need to move away from command-and-control production by their own employees in their own buildings, and instead emphasize delivery of services by networked private and nonprofit groups operating on government contracts.

WORLD: Why not move directly to citizen control by use of vouchers and tax credits?

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GOLDSMITH: Networks and vouchers are not mutually exclusive goals. Clearly vouchers empower choice, and they are worthwhile and important. But there needs to be a broad transformation in how we think about government. In education, for example, vouchers have an important effect on children's opportunities, but charter schools are also better than government schools.

WORLD: Can the parts of a successful network-say, a religious and a secular program-have entirely different methodologies but the same public-policy goal?

GOLDSMITH: In a welfare-to work-program I could easily imagine a young woman with a drug problem enrolled in both Teen Challenge and a workforce training program. Both have the goal of equipping her to be a more fulfilled human being with confidence in herself and therefore the ability to get a job.

WORLD: What about when both government and church want to fight teen pregnancy, but the church group has the goal of helping a young woman gain faith in God, in the belief that a teen thus transformed is less likely to get pregnant. Is that a problem for government, as long as success for the program is measured not by conversions but by few pregnancies?

GOLDSMITH: That's a good example of how folks with disparate approaches can create a blended message. Churches would preach that premarital sex is wrong . . . government officials could recognize the public good in that. It all depends on government's willingness to acknowledge a vital role for religion in producing a good for the community.

WORLD: How far can such a partnership go?

GOLDSMITH: It's easy and traditional for government and faith leaders to work together on housing when the issue is merely housing. The harder question is how the faith-based provider chooses who gets the house and what kind of counsel to offer. It's easy when a shelter is just a hotel. It's harder when at the shelter someone is trying to transform lives.

WORLD: What have been the successes and failures of the faith-based initiative?

GOLDSMITH: The president's leadership has mainstreamed and legitimized the faith-based solution more than before but also provoked an outcry against it. We have a long way to go at every level of government before people understand the transformational nature of religion. There remains a residual suspicion on the part of the professionals that religious solutions aren't at their level of "professionalism."

WORLD: Is your networking approach an alternative to decentralization through vouchers and tax credits?

GOLDSMITH: Vouchers and tax credits are always preferable, and networks should never take the place of those.

WORLD: How does the network model affect spending levels?

GOLDSMITH: They are independent issues: Networking will give you more per dollar spent, but the number of dollars may stay the same or even go up.

WORLD: Why, then, emphasize networks?

GOLDSMITH: This is a way of thinking about the changes that is a little less threatening. . . . On education, we can help officials to think not, "How do I provide government schools?" but, "My job is to make sure young adults are educated." The official needs to ask, "Why do I want to run a bus system? Why do I want to run a custodial service?" Most are a long way from that level of understanding.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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