Truly 'Re-Inventing' Government Could Mean Radical Change

January 24, 1993|By JEFF GREENFIELD

As the story goes, Thomas A. Edison summons the press to his laboratory in Menlo Park, N.J., promising the unveiling of an invention "that will change the world forever."

Dozens of reporters crowd into the lab. Edison enters, carrying a device concealed by a large black cloth. When the room is still, he whips off the cloth, revealing a bulb. Then, with the flick of a switch, the bulb begins to glow.

"Wait, wait!" Edison says as the crowd gasps. Then he leans over the bulb and says "Hello? Hello? Watson, come here, I want you."

There is (believe it or not) a lesson here for our new president, who has so often proclaimed his devotion to the cause of "re-inventing government." Make sure you know what it is you are re-inventing.

It will be Bill Clinton's challenge, the thinking goes, to weave his way through a thicket of often-competing constituencies, all the while trying to deliver on a set of campaign promises that sometimes sounded like a promise to square the circle:

* Expanding government programs in education, health, job creation and job retraining while cutting the size of the federal government;

* Stimulating economic growth through "investment" (read: "spending") while cutting the federal budget deficit in half;

* Delivering more health care while curbing the huge growth in health-care costs -- now approaching $900 billion a year -- which Mr. Clinton said would "bankrupt us."

And here is where the concept of "re-inventing government" comes in. Taken from the title of a book by David Osborne, one of the leading academic experts in the workings of government, the concept embodies the idea that traditional, top-down bureaucratized government has failed every bit as much as the Republican's faith in "trickle-down" economics. Both reveal, in one of Mr. Clinton's favorite phrases, the influence of "brain-dead" politics on both parties.

Instead, the argument goes, government needs to re-think how it delivers the goods. Instead of the disastrous public-housing program, use government seed-money and tax incentives to encourage private housing investment and tenant ownership of public housing.

Instead of public jobs programs, encourage small-scale investments through community banks and development corporations. Keep decision-making as local as possible, but don't be deluded by the idea that the marketplace can put funds where they are most needed.

All this raises one troublesome question: Can Bill Clinton, or anyone else "re-invent" government at the margins -- or is something much bolder and riskier required to do what needs doing and, just as important, to convince the public that things will change?

Consider the question of life today in many inner cities, where Americans confront a host of ills -- poverty, joblessness, bad health care, bad housing, crime -- all connected with each other.

tTC For the better part of 30 years, government has declared its intention to do something about these conditions, with programs whose titles alone could fill a good-sized phone book.

Yet, after all of this, after all of these good intentions by government, what we are left with is the central fact that, in many of these neighborhoods, the first and most critical obligation of government has been abandoned: the obligation to protect citizens from assault in the conduct of their daily lives.

L Permit me a small exercise in fantasy to illustrate a point:

Imagine President Clinton calls Gen. Colin L. Powell into the Oval Office.

"General," he says, "you are chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at a time when we really have no more wars to fight overseas. But we are losing the war we should be fighting here. I want you in charge of that war.

"And I want to know -- within 30 days -- how to take several hundred thousand men and women in the Armed Forces -- trained people who will soon be out of work -- and transfer them to a civilian force that can be deployed in our most violent neighborhoods, under the control of local police authorities acting under the strict limits of the Constitution."

Imagine that, within a few weeks, the citizens of these beleaguered neighborhoods wake up to find they are reasonably safe; that the same government force used to protect the right of blacks to vote a generation ago, the same government force used to protect earthquake and hurricane victims from looting and violence, has now been employed on their behalf.

Go further: Imagine Chicago Housing Authority Chief Vincent Lane, who has been rooting out gang presence in public housing projects, is put in charge of a similar effort nationwide -- backed by sufficient force to do the job.

Imagine that, simultaneously, federal resources are marshaled to provide small-scale loans to entrepreneurs, along the lines of the South Shore Bank that Clinton has praised so often.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.