A Productivity Junkie Takes On Fat Cityby
Bill Clinton couldn't have been clearer in his campaign manifesto, Putting People First. "It is time to radically change the way government operates," he said, urging "a shift from top-down bureaucracy to entrepreneurial government." Clinton promised that he would do to the bloated government bureaucracy what many corporate executives have done at their companies: Use technology and current management techniques to boost efficiency.
The rhetoric resonated with voters, who were fed up with waste in Washington. Besides, in an era of fiscal restraint, the idea of delivering more for less is an imperative for an activist such as Clinton. "Taxpayers feel they are getting Kmart government at Saks Fifth Avenue prices," says Elaine C. Kamarck, who helps run the Administration's reorganization team. "Our job is to make government work better and cost less." The Clintonites will try to do that by targeting processes--such as procurement, labor-management relations, and communications among agencies.
BOX-SHUFFLING? As innocuous as it sounds, Clinton's drive is certain to be highly controversial among federal workers, Congress, and even business, which has grown comfortable with the inefficient but predictable status quo. To demonstrate the program's high priority, Clinton turned the job over to Vice-President Al Gore. Since April, Gore has been meeting regularly with agency bureaucrats and soliciting reform ideas from the private sector. And on June 25, he'll hold a town meeting in Philadelphia to discuss reform measures with management experts from all over the country. Meanwhile, hundreds mf staffers from various federal agencies have been crawling around the warrens of the government looking for inefficiencies that can be rooted out.
Gore, a productivity junkie, is getting high-level help from Kamarck, a well-connected New Democrat, and Philip Lader, a certified Friend of Bill and deputy director for management at the Office of Management & Budget. Says Donald F. Kettl, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin: "No Administration in recent memory has made government performance such a high priority."
By September, all this activity is supposed to produce a package of recommendations. They'll be controversial, even though the Administration is avoiding some fundamental questions about the role of government. A handful of senior White House aides would like to scrap some federal agencies and shift many responsibilities to cities and states. But others, haunted by the Carter Administration's failed reorganization attempts, deride such moves as mere box-shuffling. "We're not going to recommend new departments or big shifts in departments," says David Osborne, a White House consultant who has written widely on ways to increase efficiency in state and local governments. "When you do that you expend tremendous political capital and set off incredible turf wars."
TWO TRACKS. For now, the White House is moving on two parallel tracks. The first, called the National Performance Review, is an attempt to address issues that cross government agencies, such as procurement and management. At the same time, Cabinet secretaries are expected to come up with ways to improve performance at their own shops. Clintonites are patterning their campaign on a similar exercise in Texas, which state officials claim will cut costs by more than $2 billion.
But if Clinton is to succeed, the report will be only a first step. Says Kettl: "The critical question is what kind of follow-through will there be." During Ronald Reagan's presidency, the highly publicized Grace Commission report went nowhere, in part because Reagan never followed it up with real changes. Even if every Gore recommendation is acted on, Clinton will have just begun reshaping the hidebound bureaucracy. "The U.S. government does not get reinvented in six months or four years," says Lader. "It'll take decades."
Clinton can impose some changes himself, but he'll need backing from Congress and the federal-employee unions on other proposals. And there are already hints that the Administration is running into trouble on both fronts.
Months ago, some Capitol Hill supporters urged Clinton to take steps to shortcut congressional second-guessing. They wanted the President to propose legislation that would give him carte blanche reorganization authority unless his moves were blocked by Congress within, say, 30 days. Clinton rejected the advice, choosing instead to wait until he had reform proposals in hand. Now, he risks having his ideas nibbled to death by scores of turf-conscious Capitol Hill subcommittees. Worse, congressional backers worry that Clinton has done little to prepare lawmakers for his overhaul. Says one Hill ally: "They are not doing the political work they need to."
For their part, federal-employee unions fear that reinventing government is merely code for cutting jobs and pay. Gore has tried to smooth relations with bureaucrats by bringing hundreds of them into the process. But the unions aren't buying. "This is not Texas," remarks John N. Sturdivant, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. "And it damn sure ain't
SCARED. These days, Gore's staff is sifting through 3,000 pages of recommendations from the task forces (table, page 76). But some broad outlines are becoming clear. One idea is to grant more autonomy to managers in hiring, promotion, and procurement. That may mean breaking down the highly centralized federal purchasing system, as well as restructuring rigid civil-service pay classifications.
The reinventers also want to improve communication among agencies. For instance, as many as 125 different offices in 14 agencies provide job-training assistance. The Clintonites won't try to consolidate them but will attempt to make it easier for them to share information. Another goal: setting up a one-stop-shopping arrangement where individuals, businesses, and local governments can get information about related programs offered by more than one agency.
The White House feels it can solve many of these problems by cutting away layers of bureaucracy. "The whole mentality is one of control. You have checkers on checkers," says R. Scott Fosler, president of the National Academy
of Public Administration. "People are scared to do anything at all." The White House hopes to free bureaucrats to seek creative solutions without worrying about ruining their careers. "The big question," says Kamarck, "is how do you make government accountable without adding significant costs."
That is, undoubtedly, a big issue. But there is a bigger one. With battles looming on trade, health care, and the budget, will Bill Clinton be willing to spend his dwindling stack of political chits on yet another massive reform project--especially one that is sure to run into powerful resistance? If not, all this work will end as yet another dusty report on how to reform the bureaucracy.
GORE'S GOVERNMENT OVERHAUL PERSONNEL Revamp rigid civil-service system to give managers flexibility to promote and fire, create work teams, and set merit pay PROCUREMENT Break down centralized purchasing to let line managers buy, ditch the "use it or lose it" budget system that encourages unnecessary purchases and creates shortages of needed material TURF Improve communications among the many agencies whose work overlaps to provide "one-stop shopping" for citizens seeking information or aid RESTRUCTURING Foster a new debate over federal-state duties but avoid sweeping reorganization of federal agencies DATA: BUSINESS WEEK