In Sunnyvale, Calif., the carefully landscaped heart of Silicon Valley, the messy details of municipal government have been reduced to such a science that some local officials are boldly suggesting they might even tame the greatest fiscal monster of all, the federal budget.
Sunnyvale, a little city of engineers and electronics firms just north of San Jose, has been successfully calibrating and quantifying its municipal services for two decades. Bureaucrats in Sunnyvale have learned to pay attention to results, not just rules, and as strange as that might sound east of the Potomac, the system's practitioners insist it works.
Take two examples from the 1990-91 Sunnyvale budget (the city budgets on a 10-year cycle, another innovation). The parks department promised to "repair all reported vandalism . . . within 3 working days, 90% of the time" in return for a $33,938.40 appropriation. The police said they would respond to emergency calls "within 5.6 minutes or less 90% of the time" in return for $677,398.48. Unlike budget lines in most cities, the price tag for each task included not just the cost of staff salaries but fringe benefits, equipment rental, space, and office supplies.
The method is called performance-based budgeting, and its success in Sunnyvale and in a few other cities has caught the attention of the Office of Management and Budget and led Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.) to introduce a bill requiring the federal government, in Roth's words, "to tell the American taxpayers, upfront, what results to expect when their tax dollars are spent, and then later, what was actually achieved."
Sunnyvale City Manager Tom Lewcock, although pleased with the attention, said he is under no illusion that a device that tidied the affairs of a city of 117,000 mostly well-behaved, affluent citizens can make immediate headway in a politically torn, poorly disciplined federal capital representing more than 2,000 times as many people.
"There is no question that you can't just take something out of a city with a $120 million budget and apply it directly to the federal government," said Lewcock, who has been city manager for 11 years. "But if I were asked if the principles work regardless of the size of the government, I would say unquestionably yes."
In a statement to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee in October, Budget Director Richard G. Darman was quick to grasp the popular appeal of the Sunnyvale method. "Who can argue with such performance-based budgeting?" he said. "Government must be judged on performance. On the other hand, it is not clear whether performance-based budgeting, as implemented at the local level, will work with respect to federal programs. Nonetheless, OMB believes the idea is worth exploring. . . ."
Sunnyvale officials say it is fitting the federal government inspects this California blossom, for it grew from a seed Washington planted in 1973 and then forgot.
Sunnyvale's public safety department was one of 13 local agencies nationwide to participate in a pilot project sponsored that year by the General Accounting Office and the International City Management Association. The city council liked the results of the performance-standard budget so much it voted to establish the system in all city departments. Sunnyvale is the only participant in the pilot project to embrace the idea so warmly.
The system cannot measure every act of government, such as the width of a license bureau clerk's smile or decibel level of a garbage can dropped on the early morning pavement. "Some kinds of services are easily quantified, and some are not," said David Vossbrink, city community relations officer. He said measurable services "are used as indices" to judge the work of government as a whole.
John Mercer, a former Sunnyvale mayor who now serves as minority counsel for the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, said the change revolutionized the way city staff members evaluated their work and introduced a new sense of efficiency and priority many had not thought possible. "Because city employees record task codes, as well as work hours, on their time cards, management soon knows if too much time is being spent to reach a specified level of service," he said.
Council members began to frame budget questions in a more meaningful way. It was no longer "How many police patrols should we add?" but "How much faster do we want emergency police response to be?" Also, Mercer said, "by fully allocating all costs associated with delivering a particular service, it is easier to judge the benefits of contracting out."
To a city council that includes three managers from local engineering and electronics firms, an accountant and a real estate investor, the process seems natural and workable anywhere. "The same principles of aerodynamics that apply to a Piper Cub also apply to a 747," Mercer said.
The system can also have favorable political impact, allowing Lewcock and council members to tell voters that city employee productivity has increased 20 percent in the last five years.
A few other U.S. cities, such as San Diego and Phoenix, have reorganized their budget systems in similar fashion, but Lewcock has seen little sign that the idea is spreading quickly. The best program he has found outside Sunnyvale is not in this country, but in Bexley, England, a community of about 220,000 near London.
If other cities are slow to impose performance standards on their work, Lewcock and others ask, what is likely to happen at the federal level when the fragile idea is exposed to the brute force of congressional lobbyists and the civil service?
The best approach is to apply the medicine in small doses, through pilot programs in a few federal agencies, Lewcock said, joining Roth and Darman and others who say it deserves a try.
"It is a fundamentally different way of looking at the world and at management," Lewcock said. "Most people would say that the federal government could use a little bit of that."