The Job Training Squabbles: Is This Any Way To Reinvent Government?

How tough is it to reinvent government? Just ask Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich. The former Harvard lecturer began his Washington tenure with a laudable objective: He wanted to crunch 154 federal job-training programs dispersed among 14 federal agencies into a more focused "reeducation" system that could provide easy access for dislocated workers. Reich chose to start modestly, by consolidating nine training programs within his own department.

But organized labor, mayors, and many members of Congress, ever suspicious of killing off even the most ineffectual jobs program, have balked at these low-key reforms. As a result, Reich's consolidation drive could be doomed. "It's always an uphill battle," he concedes.

There's little doubt that the government's $25 billion job-training bureaucracy needs an overhaul. Companies complain that workers who emerge from the programs often lack the skills they need to perform their jobs. And a recent General Accounting Office report concludes that few programs are well managed. "Administrators did not know if participants got jobs," the report says. "If they got jobs, administrators did not know whether the jobs were related to the training provided."

SHARP ELBOWS. Reich's remedy seemed innocuous. Included in the consolidation was a plan to establish "one-stop" career centers where the unemployed could apply for everything from food stamps to training. And a new computerized job bank would have given workers up-to-date data on local labor-market conditions. "The economy has changed," says Reich. "The system has not."

By retooling a handful of programs within his department, Reich avoided turf wars with other agencies, from the Agriculture Dept. to the Veterans Affairs Dept., that have their own training programs. Instead, he ran into turf wars on Capitol Hill. Unions were irate that Reich's plan would undermine the generous $270 million program for workers who lose jobs to foreign competition. Unionized government workers were equally outraged that Reich would let private companies run some one-stop career centers, imperiling bureaucrats' jobs. "We don't want the federal employment service cut out of the picture," says one AFL-CIO leader.

Although employers backed Reich's goal, some business lobbies balked at one provision: making a 0.2% payroll tax permanent--even though it has lingered on a temporary basis for 17 years. And mayors worried about a rule that each employment center serve at least 200,000 people. That goal would force the merger of a number of local programs and cut the power of many mayors to dispense training grants.

OBJECT LESSON? To complicate life for Reich, Senate Labor & Human Resources Committee Chairman Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and the panel's ranking minority member, Nancy L. Kassebaum (R-Kan.), think the Labor Secretary's proposal doesn't go far enough. They're crafting a measure that could consolidate 110 programs. But other committee chairmen who don't want the programs they oversee changed will likely block this more ambitious effort as well.

For the Clintonites, the trouble the Administration is having in fixing the retraining mess is an object lesson in the difficulties it will have transforming well-intentioned reinventing-government rhetoric into reality. Reich thought his "think small" approach provided the answer to entrenched interests who would resist wholesale change. But he's learning that in Gridlock City, even modest change is to be feared.

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