Scholar: Federal Reform Fails

The law is the law. But in the business of reform not all laws are created equal, public administration scholar Paul C. Light argues in a new book.

Some reform laws pursue strategies quite opposite of those pursued by others. Also, in the reform game, the whole does not equal the sum of its parts. More reform piled on the sediment of prior reform does not a shining castle build. Often it just adds to the muck. As Light observes in his new book, The Tides of Reform: Making Government Work, 1945-1995 (Yale University Press), there exists among political leaders a continuing consensus for reform when the reform most needed is less reform.

Light groups 141 reform statutes Congress has passed during the last half century into four categories of reform. The "scientific management" approach that prevailed early in the period put its belief in experts and bureaucratic hierarchies. The "liberation management" school, represented most recently by Vice President Al Gore's National Performance Review (NPR), wants to free line managers to manage. More ascendant now are two tides of reform more to Congress' liking: "watchful eye" and "war on waste." The former insists on oversight and disclosure of information, while the latter seeks a government that costs less (as does Gore's mixed-message NPR). Many of the recent laws emphasize reform in procedure-piling new procedures on top of old programs with little attention to whether the programs themselves are worth keeping.

Light argues that "we have precious little evidence that any of the 141 initiatives accomplished their lofty goals," in part because "the government has virtually no established baselines against which to measure success."

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