Dear Gov. Brown …

Put communication on the top of the list

Back Commentary Jan 1, 2011 By Winnie Comstock-Carlson

I have long believed that the best thinkers outside government have a great deal to offer those inside government. In that spirit, I asked several dozen of our region’s business and thought-leaders to give their ideas on key steps your new administration could take to repair our battered state.

The responses were astute, thoughtful and candid. No one thinks your job is easy; no one thinks he or she has all the answers.

In this and my next two publisher’s letters, my goal is to give voice to these often-unheard individuals, all of whom — regardless of political party — want to see California succeed. I begin with their thoughts on how you and your staff must change the way state government operates.

Honest and blunt communication with the people of California tops the list of must-dos. Open dialogue about both problems and the range of solutions is a prerequisite to us supporting your agenda. And no serious change can occur in California without widespread public support.

What you should be communicating is a real plan that includes a real budget — not just political chatter about the “year of education” or gimmicks like selling state buildings — because we all know that there are no simple solutions. It will take years of work to get California out of this mess.

We’ll save detailed thoughts on the budget for next month’s letter, but there’s one important structural change I’ll mention here: Institute a two-year budget cycle so that one year legislators can focus solely on the budget, the other on oversight and planning. Many, many organizations — and 20 other states — find this an effective way to operate.

Now, back to your plan. Communicate the plan. Build consensus for the plan. Implement the plan. Measure the results. Adapt the plan, and keep reminding us of where we’re going. That sounds simple but all of us who run organizations know it isn’t — and we also know that it is the only effective way to manage.

By having an honest, truthful plan — one that is communicated again and again to the public to gain their support — you may be able to work against the entrenched interests and extreme partisanship that keep the state in gridlock. Keep pushing to forge compromises within the Legislature, and give public credit to those legislators who help to get the people’s business done — and public exposure to those who don’t.

Most people, regardless of party, probably agree that the public voting-initiative system is responsible in part for the state’s present dilemma. One solution may be to convene a constitutional convention to address this and other problems in our current state constitution. Others include increasing the number of signatures needed to propose an initiative and requiring that each initiative identify a funding source.

While initiatives do push decision-making closer to citizens, we think there’s a better way. Strengthen regional government groups such as the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, now responsible for regional transportation planning and funding. Give these agencies control over long-range planning, priorities and expenditures in their regions, not just for transportation, but for areas such as economic development and health care as well.

None of these and other much-needed changes will be quick or easy. But right now we believe you have a window of opportunity to begin the change that our state so badly needs.

Please don’t squander this opportunity. Act on your promise to seek out the best ideas from every segment of our state, including the business community. Act like a real leader — of all Californians — and you’ll earn our support.

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