Salem Revolution: How One Organization Plans to Modernize Oregon’s Government

No one disputes that our government needs to evolve. That’s where the consensus stops.

The newly formed, non-partisan Institute for Modern Government (IMG) seeks to change that. By drawing on academic and professional resources, the IMG studies and supports public organizations facing today’s operational and management policy issues.

The IMG Board, composed of Oregon State government veterans and Willamette University faculty, recently held a roundtable discussion about the challenges that the Institute was formed to confront, and the opportunities for replacing Industrial-Age models of governance with Information-Age practices already tested and trusted in the private sector.

Conversation moderated by Mike Russell (Mike R.). Participants included Catherine Weber (Catherine W), Geoff Guilfoy (Geoff G), John Radford (John R), Mike Marsh (Mike M), Susan Wilson (Sue W), Roger Wang (Roger W) and Russell Yost (Russell Y).

Mike R: Is the public sector open to the experimentation and risk-taking that the IMG offers?

Geoff G: Yes. Public employees already have the ideas, desire and aptitude, but they’ll hire consultants to help them get that message together. That’s why you see the heavy reliance on consulting groups. The IMG has that same ability but with a different motivation.

Sue W: Think about Thomas Jefferson. We remember him for his accomplishments, not his many failures. Today, the IMG can serve as a laboratory for government. We can explore the possibilities that failures uncover, and help public organizations move past a paralysis based in fear.

John R: Projects that try to improve government involve a lot of capital investment. That’s a budget issue. Investments get an awful lot of scrutiny and not enough consideration by politicians. I think IMG can bring an independent and objective look and even some pressure on policymakers to pay more attention to making those capital investments in infrastructure.

Sue W: That’s one of the IMG’s goals: to help people see government as a system. It’s not a collection of discrete actions that you either like or dislike piecemeal. You can’t consider it in the abbreviated span from one crisis to the next. You have to see the entire system.

Mike R: How is the IMG adapting developments from the business world to serve its clients?

Catherine W: In Fred Thompson’s class on Benefit-Cost Analysis, students helped Oregon’s DMV to develop a pricing model for products and services. That’s almost a foreign idea in government. Historically, direct and indirect costs are estimated, not computed.

Geoff G: I don’t think people expect government to be business, but they do expect more modern business processes and technologies.

Catherine W: In one of our early projects with a public agency, we saw something approximating a production line. Staff were doing tasks that would have long since been automated in the private sector. The contrast was incredible. Modern government needs a model with flexible teams and semi-autonomous knowledge workers. That requires a whole different system of supervision and control.

John R: Private employees have better access to information, better access to the knowledge workers of the company, and less bureaucratic processes and procedures. If we can get an organization in government to shift its thinking about management and processes, we could have quicker decisions, easier access to capital, more risk-taking -with accountability- and more openness.

Mike R: How can the skills learned in Willamette’s MBA program influence effectiveness in the public sector?

Sue W: Even within their profession and technical expertise, people get isolated, and don’t see how their decisions impact other departments. Because it’s broad based, Willamette’s MBA program helps students to understand the bigger picture.

Geoff G: Willamette’s MBA program is very strong at teaching students to enter or rejoin the workforce with an ‘I’m-here-to-make-a-difference’ attitude, rather than just ‘I’m-here-to-get-a-job.’

Russell Y: More and more, prospective students ask us about our program in public and not-for-profit management. They are looking to [Willamette] and the IMG to help them make that transition, and to prepare agencies for their arrival after graduation. Agencies need to be ready for that, just as we are preparing the students to be ready for the agencies.

Mike R: Give an example of how the IMG has engaged one of its client agencies.

Catherine W: The State of Oregon is creating educational ‘Hubs’ in each county to oversee and coordinate social services, education and health for preschool age children. With support from Fred Thompson at the Center for Governance and Public Policy Research, Mike Marsh and I supervised an MBA student, Lisa Trauernicht, to serve Marion County’s initial efforts.

Mike M: Marion County received eight applications to serve as the Learning Hub. The county asked the IMG to help evaluate each applicant’s organizational capacity. Lisa completed an assessment of these applicants, covering topics such as governance, business skills, and building relationships. The results identified strengths and opportunities in the various groups, and noted how these could be combined for the most successful approach. Lisa reported our recommendations and reasoning to the County Commissioners. She felt it was a great experience. The County received the report with interest and appreciated the analysis. Since then, representatives of the Hub have asked for additional assistance in the next phases of the project.

Mike R: The IMG is also hosted the Government Accounts Collection Symposium on November 1st. What topics were discussed?

John R: The state carries billions of dollars in accounts receivables on everything from court cases to child support to traffic fines. Now they’re trying to collect. You can imagine the complexity involved.

The IMG offered a neutral platform to bring together parties to help solve this problem. And by doing so, maybe it will modernize a few processes and procedures.

During the one-day symposium, we had speakers from the public and private sectors discussing common challenges and best practices.

Catherine W: It’s quite exciting.

You can easily see the SOS Audit identifying this problem in 1997 and track subsequent attempts to fix it. Meanwhile, the amount of uncollected revenue is increasing exponentially.

Mike R: Have any of the IMG’s client agencies applied the Institute’s suggestions?

Catherine W: The vision for IMG is not to be a partner in fixing all of government. Rather, we’re developing a model and characteristics of a government rooted in the Industrial Age, and one that’s fit for addressing challenges in the Information Age. Without a vision of what government could look like, we’re never going to get to that optimization.

I use the analogy of my house. It was built in the 1940s, when government bureaucracy was at its zenith. Today, my house needs to be renovated. How do I go about that? Am I just going to go make ad hoc fixes? No.

I’d create a vision of what a modern house could look like, choose the pieces that fit me and my life, and what I could afford. An architect would help me sequence the remodel.

That’s my vision of where modern government has to go. We will be helping people figure out how to make the renovations.

Our current projects are helping us develop those two models: the inventory of a broken government, and the model of a modern government.

Participant Bios

Catherine Webber, Founder and CEO of the IMG

Former State Senator, State Records Manager, Administrator, Parole Board Member, Sr. Policy Advisor to Governor, IT Policy Analyst. Founding member of Certificate in Public Management program and Institute for Modern Government. Willamette U. JD, MBA.

Geoff Guilfoy

Geoff Guilfoy is the President and CEO of Lumen Leaders LLC, an Oregon-based professional management consulting firm. Earlier in his career, Geoff served in executive management positions in Oregon state government.

As a Contributing Executive Professor at Atkinson Graduate School of Management, Geoff leads courses on management consulting, nonprofit management, and government.

John Radford, Chair of the IMG

Former Oregon State Controller, Past President and Lifetime Member, National Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers, and Treasurers (NASACT); Past President and Lifetime Member, National Association of State Comptrollers; Founding Officer and Past Board member, National Electronic Commerce Coordinating Council (NECCO), Founding Officer and Past Board member, Oregon Fiscal Officers Association, Past Member of the National Executive Committee, Association of Government Accountability (AGA), and Former Trustee of the Financial Accounting Foundation

Mike Marsh

Former Deputy Director for the Department of Transportation; Administrator of the State Facilities Division; Administrator of State Budget & Management; Executive Professor Willamette University, Atkinson Graduate School of Management.

Russell Yost

Russell Yost is the Director of Marketing for Willamette University’s Atkinson Graduate School of Management and a Contributing Assistant Professor in Marketing. He previously worked in the Oregon Legislative Assembly as a staff member in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Sue Wilson

Former Administrator, Oregon State Human Resource Services Division, Administrative Services Director, Oregon Department of Justice; Legislative Administrator, Oregon Legislative Assembly, Contributing Associate Professor, Atkinson Graduate School of Management, Willamette University

Thanks to Fred Thompson from the Center for Governance and Public Policy Research for his contributions to this article.

Written and prepared by Mike Russell, Pivotal Writing.

Fred Thompson

Fred Thompson, Grace and Elmer Goudy Professor of Public Management and Public Policy and Director, Center for Governance and Public Policy Research

Roundup: Institute for Modern Government Hosted Debt Collection Conference

Read Oregon Senator Doug Whitsett's Recap of the Debt Collection Conference
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