The New Jargon for User-Friendly Government

TOM BAXTER

April 14, 1993|By TOM BAXTER

Atlanta -- Language update: It is no longer hip to refer to taxpayers as ''taxpayers.'' Now they're ''customers.'' Government provides its customers with ''services,'' and what it has lacked up to now is a system of ''quality management.''

No one has as yet suggested that an IRS auditor be referred to as a customer service representative, but you get the drift.

This new jargon was much in evidence last week when Vice President Al Gore met with a hundred or so Atlanta-based federal workers for a town-meeting-style session on government waste and inefficiency.

More than one of the federal employees had read ''Reinventing Government,'' by David Osborne and Ted Gaubler, the bible of that school which argues that bureaucrats should learn to think more like flexible, innovative entrepreneurs.

Bill Clinton's administration has embraced this concept as a remedy for the shortsightedness and waste that the customers so often complain about.

At times during last week's meeting, it seemed as if the vast, many-tentacled federal government was about to be transformed into one big Saturn plant. That isn't likely to happen soon, but a good dose of what might be called the jargon of quality control was probably inevitable, no matter who won the last election.

Many of the concepts behind the new jargon originate with W. Edwards Deming, who is deemed by the Japanese to be the father of quality-based production management.

Mr. Deming is revered not only by the Osborne Democrats but by the New Age Republicans, notably Rep. Newt Gingrich. At the Republican National Convention last year, Mr. Gingrich scrapped a speech about his near-death experience in a car accident to deliver a discourse on Deming that mystified most of those assembled in the Houston Astrodome.

One of the main purveyors of the new entrepreneur-speak, Democratic Leadership Council Director Al From, argues that while both parties have been reading from the same page, it is the Democrats who have the greatest stake in making these ideas work.

''The Democrats have a reason for doing it, because they want to make government popular again,'' said Mr. From, who headed the domestic side of the Clinton transition team before returning to his DLC post.

How critical this is for the success of the Clinton administration can be illustrated by data from exit polls taken after the election. By a 55-36 percent margin, those who voted for Bill Clinton said they preferred a government that provides more at higher costs over one that costs less and delivers less -- exactly the reverse of the result for all voters polled.

What is most troubling to the Democrats is that the customers who voted for Ross Perot are even more anti-government than the national average. By 66-26, they prefer lower costs and fewer services. Thus, Mr. From argues, President Clinton has the challenge of satisfying his own voters who hunger for more government while making government more popular among those who don't like it at all.

Such an effort can't succeed without the good will of federal employees such as those who met with Mr. Gore.

One sensed, watching them last week, that the federal workers had heard a lot of jargon and new initiatives come and go.

But they also seemed to take at least as much pride in their work as most in the private sector, and to be keenly interested in giving government service a better reputation.

President Clinton had better hope so, because it is only the employees who can turn these ideas into more than jargon.

Tom Baxter is chief political writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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