Round up the usual cliches Going nowhere fast

April 28, 1996|By Sara Engram

IN HIS 1995 book, ''What Comes Next,'' James P. Pinkerton describes a White House meeting in early 1989, in which he and other policy wonks were trying to flesh out George Bush's promise to be ''the education president.''

The meeting dragged into the night. ''As my mind started to lTC wander,'' he recalls, ''I imagined that the bureaucratic buzzwords, sports metaphors and flakes of stale imagery being tossed about the room were solid objects -- and that I could see them bounce off the white-plaster walls and plop down on the wall-to-wall carpeting. 'Invest in our future,' went one. Then whoosh! Another platitude went past my ear: 'The ball's in their court.' And boing! 'Hit the ground running' skidded to rest near my foot.''

A job for Superfund

The group hit on an idea, an Education Superfund, somewhat like the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund for cleaning up toxic-waste sites, only better.

How would it be better? No one could figure that out. They knew the real purpose for such a program was ''to give the president an excuse to travel around the country ladling money-nuggets from the federal cornucopia.''

Mr. Pinkerton adds: ''I looked at the heaps of cliches scattered about the floor and thought that the cleanup might start here.''

The Education Superfund didn't survive that late-night jargon-fest. But plenty of other half-baked ideas have come to fruition. Did you ever wonder where all those ''initiatives'' and ''models'' and agencies or offices with vague mission statements came from? Probably from some similar kind of meeting, the same process of buzzwords and big, empty ideas, replicated thousands of times by politicians of both parties at all levels of government.

Americans, long known for their energy, optimism and can-do approach to life, have somehow bred a bureaucracy that reflects few of those virtues. Rather than actually solving problems, or even addressing them in a way that gets results, these bureaucrats instead have become satisfied with rustling up the usual cliches and using them to paste together the appearance of a plausible answer to tough problems.

A president as we know it

And why not? From the ''education president'' or the administration that vowed to ''end welfare as we know it,'' to governors, mayors, county executives and other elected officials, the bureaucrats serve masters anxious to make a splash -- fast. They need to put their mark on something, regardless of whether holds any hope of making a difference.

In fact, making a difference is not the purpose. The game is getting re-elected.

With no effective leadership from politicians, the bureaucracy focuses like a laser -- not on getting results but rather on fueling the process. And why not? The social welfare system may not produce many positive results for the poor, but it provides a lot of jobs.

Not just middle-class civil-service jobs, either. Think of all the wonks like Mr. Pinkerton, paid fat salaries to throw buzz-words around at meetings in government offices, or at academic gatherings or in the comfortable halls of private foundations.

The do-good industry

Let's face it: Social welfare is big business. The problem is, few people approach it with the hard-headed realism any business would demand.

Name almost any social issue, and examine the ''solutions.'' Are they based on solid research that clearly defines the problem, spells out all the contributing factors and specifies ways of dealing with each one? Most important, do they lay out measurable goals, so that it will be possible to learn what actually works and what doesn't?

Take drug abuse: Is any treatment program effective in the long run for the thousands of drug abusers in Baltimore unless those people have alternatives waiting for them and a reason to say no the next time they see their dealer on the street?

Drug abuse poses tough, discouraging questions that seem to paint an overwhelming problem. But simply funding more-of-the-same treatment programs is not going to make much difference.

We're already spending lots of money fighting drugs and treating drug abuse. If we really want to alleviate Baltimore's drug problems, shouldn't we try something different -- like a serious, comprehensive approach?

What ''serious'' means

''Serious'' means planning meticulously, administrating effectively and, of course, measuring results by relentlessly tracking clients. It would involve everything from law enforcement to building the infrastructure -- treatment, jobs, recreation for youth, effective schools, etc. -- that will provide alternatives to drugs.

That approach would be complex and expensive, and it wouldn't make the problem go away. But unlike our present expensive failures in the war on drugs, it holds the promise of making a dent in the problem.

Better yet, it would be able to say to taxpayers: ''Here's what your money accomplished.''

How many drug-treatment plans can tell us that now?

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 4/28/96

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