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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Making Reform Stick

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If one thing is sure about the future of bureaucratic reform, the next president will sweep away whatever his predecessor has done and develop an entirely new package of change.

That's what President George W. Bush did with Vice President Al Gore's reinventing government campaign, which now resides in a cyber cemetery at the University of North Texas. It was also what Gore did with President George H. W. Bush's total quality management initiative, which lingered in name only until his son abolished the remnants of the program in 2001.

The private sector knows reforms take years, if not decades to stick, but first-term presidents want the impact to affect their reelection. Congress wants them faster. If a reform yields no results in a year or so, it is back to the drawing board-Gore's reinventing government program was reinvented three times in six years.

The next president would be wise to take more care in drafting his management package. Instead of adding yet another corpse to the body count of forgotten reforms, he should take the best from the past in fashioning a new agenda. At least in federal management reform, there is truly nothing new under the sun, and many old promises merit a second chance. Call it something new-for example, the Streamlining for Performance Initiative-but don't ignore the past.

The next president should start by acknowledging Bush's commitment to performance measurement, which actually tracks back to Gore's reforms. Al-though high performance is in the eye of the political beholder, Bush's effort achieved at least some success in changing the conversation from inputs such as dollars to program results. The administration's new tool for rating individual performance has been a bust, however. The president's budget analysts might know a great deal in terms of dollars, but they don't have the training to tell good management from bad.

The 44th president also should dump the Bush administration's traffic-light-style scoring system for measuring progress of its management agenda. The green lights heralding progress have flashed on and off more with the political calendar than with actual progress. Cabinet secretaries can preen about their scores whenever they get together, but no one knows for sure whether they reflect real improvement on the front lines of government where services are delivered. If the next president wants agencies to be serious about measurement, then his management team must be serious about it, too.

The winner of the 2008 election also should revisit Gore's investment in customer satisfaction and flattening the number of federal managers. By requiring agencies to conduct annual satisfaction surveys, for example, Gore let the bureaucracy know that citizens would have a voice in measuring results. And by cutting the ratio of managers to employees, he eased at least some of the hierarchical thickening that still undermines efficiency and accountability. The campaign had salutary effects for the Democratic Party. For the first time in years, the public began to believe that Democrats could do just as well at managing government as Republicans. Coupled with a cut of 250,000 federal jobs, Gore's campaign reassured the public that the Clinton administration was serious about trimming bureaucracy.

The next president should go even further back in history to rescue the first President Bush's total quality management agenda. Designed to mimic similar efforts in the U.S. automobile industry, the administration focused on breaking down long-standing rules and procedures that explain the recent cascade of breakdowns-the toxic trailers, counterfeit heparin, aircraft groundings, leaded toys and poisonous peppers. But Bush was out of office long before his reforms penetrated the bureaucratic mind-set.

Most of these efforts were easily swept away because they were established through executive fiat, not statute. That made them painfully easy targets for immediate disposal. Thus, even as the next president blends his own initiatives with the past, he should make his management agenda part of his legislative list, not executive order. Congress has become addicted to the reform du jour and must be a partner in creating the "steadiness in administration" that Alexander Hamilton described as essential to a government well-executed.

In the meantime, Congress should restore presidential authority to implement limited reorganizations. Presidents had the ability to submit reorganization plans to Congress for what was almost automatic approval until 1984, when the Supreme Court rejected the device as an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power.

Congress will never give another president the authority to abolish whole departments and agencies. But a more restrictive initiative-by-initiative renewal might allow action against specific targets such as the redesign of antiquated rules and the process for replacing the 600,000 civil servants who will retire during the next decade.

Wedded to a fast-track congressional review process of the kind used when closing military bases, this authority could give the next president a fighting chance to marry the "golden oldies" of past administrations with a new agenda of long- overdue reforms in everything from the presidential appointments process to rebuilding a notoriously inefficient civil service. It could be just the device for making reform last long enough to stick.

Paul C. Light is the author of A Government Ill Executed (Harvard University Press, 2008) and a professor at New York University's Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service.

 
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