Gore Plan to 'Reinvent' Government Takes a Radical Approach But Ducks Some Key Issues

September 12, 1993|By PAUL LIGHT

Government bureaucracy is rarely the stuff of which great campaign debates are made. We almost never ask about it, and when we do, as one reporter did in the 1992 vice presidential debates, the answers are soon forgotten. The public thinks government is too big, and most politicians agree. It's when we get around to the details that most reform gets lost -- cut anyone's program but mine.

Still, bureaucracy is the stuff of which great presidential frustrations are made. As the federal bureaucracy has "thickened" with each administration since Franklin Roosevelt -- growing wider with each new program and taller with each new layer of management -- the prospects for quick implementation of presidential policy have declined. Bill Clinton is further from the front-lines of government than any president in American history.

The distance between the top and bottom of government is hardly the only issue driving reform, however. According to Vice President Al Gore and the National Performance Review released last week, we are spending roughly $20 billion a year on overhead -- money largely wasted in endless, mind-numbing regulations that do nothing to improve the quality of government. It is death by a thousand paper cuts. We couldn't have designed a more frustrating, inefficient system if we tried.

Now comes the National Performance Review and a truly impressive manifest of reform. First things first. The review is not just another in a long and distinguished (and mostly forgotten) list of reports. It is quite radical.

It is, in fact, an antidote to the past reform efforts that sought to strengthen government accountability through tighter and tighter internal rules. We used to think that the way to fix what was wrong in government was to hire more inspectors, auditors, investigators, overseers, cross-checkers, list-checkers and monitors. Write enough rules, scare enough employees and -- voila -- better government. Create enough hierarchy and we could drive out fraud, waste and abuse.

We know better now. Command-and-control systems, and the distrust that goes with them, have a host of serious side effects, not the least of which is the enormous overhead of writing and enforcing the rules themselves. That's how we got 40,000 federal employees who administer a personnel system that commission after commission says has to go. That's how we got 10 pages of procurement regulations for making chocolate-chip cookies. Rules beget rules; monitors beget monitors.

Mr. Gore's reform effort points us another way. It embraces innovation, urges us to give up on our bureaucratic systems and cross-checking, and tells us to trust our employees to do what comes naturally: perform. It tells us that the path to better service is not through more rules and mid-level managers, but competition, listening and risk-taking. And it tells us that it's OK for labor and management to work together.

All in all, it's an impressive agenda, one quite at odds with the fraud-busting mentality of Ronald Reagan's Grace Commission. The answer is not a war on waste, but a war on bureaucracy. That makes the Gore review a very radical report, indeed.

There is still much to be ironed out, of course. It may prove almost impossible to cut 252,000 mid-level management jobs through attrition and retirement. The fact is that attrition is much higher at the bottom of the hierarchy, where quit rates may average 20 percent a year, than the middle or top. Getting rid of middle managers is going to be painful and disruptive and may take much longer than promised.

The proposals on competition are also thin on details. It is one thing to talk about garbage collection in Phoenix, quite another to design the systems for competition for the massive functions of the federal government.

And even as we celebrate the potential savings from reform, we must recognize that some of the changes will be expensive. We have been waiting for a new financial management system in the federal government for the better part of a decade. Perhaps now the money will be available.

More troubling, however, the National Performance Review makes no mention of the growing numbers of senior political and career executives in government. Here, it is not the sheer number of political and career executives that matters most, although the absolute numbers have grown dramatically over the past 20 years. Rather, it is how the 15,000 to 25,000 senior executives sort themselves out into layers of management interposed between the president and the front-lines of government.

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