'Energizer-in-chief' leaves legacy of reinvention
The top career civil servant behind Vice President Al Gore's reinventing government effort is leaving the federal government.
Bob Stone, the top career official at Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government (NPR), ends a 30-year federal career in May to spend more time with his family.
NPR's self-described "energizer-in-chief"-that's even the title on his business card-will keep going and going and going, even in retirement, as a consultant with the St. Paul, Minn.-based Public Strategies Group, Inc.
Stone began his career as a systems and personnel analyst for the Defense Department, eventually serving as deputy assistant Secretary of Defense for installations for 13 years. In 1993, Gore tapped Stone to head the reinvention effort. That effort has reduced the federal workforce to its lowest level in 30 years, saved $137 billion, eliminated 16,000 pages of regulations and started a "customer service revolution" in government, according to the administration.
In an interview with GovExec.com, Stone reflected on the reinvention movement and on the future of government reform.
Q: What does it mean to be energizer-in-chief?
A: Gore hired me as project director but a couple years into the job I decided I really needed to be the energizer-in-chief. That means finding people who are doing the right thing and making a fuss over them, giving them awards, making speeches about how they're making a difference to Americans.
When we got together with Internal Revenue a couple years ago to figure out how to reinvent the IRS, we got frontline IRS employees from all over the country, and we asked them what needed to be changed. They came up with dynamite ideas. For example, most people work on their taxes in their free time. They go to work in the morning, they come home in the evening and they work on their taxes. As taxes come due, they set aside time Saturday or Sunday. And what if they had a question? Tough.
IRS now has a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week help line. I'm proud to say that wasn't my idea or anyone's idea from NPR. That came from front-line IRS people.
Thousands of teams of government workers, many of them with private-sector partners, have gotten awards for reinventing government, for doing great things to serve customers or cut red tape, to save money. These are people whose lives have been enriched and who have enriched other people's lives.
Q: What are some of the accomplishments of reinvention you're most proud of?
A: One of the tangible things is straightening out government purchasing. Today there are tens of thousands of government workers who have government credit cards. If they need a simple, inexpensive thing for their work, like a piece of software or a book or some green file folders, they don't have to go through the rigmarole they used to have to go through to get it. In the past, you could either spend your own money for things you needed for work or forget it, because typically it took a year to get anything from the government procurement system.
I think a bigger deal, and this is not as complete, is just spreading the belief in empowerment. Government workers traditionally have been part of an industrial-age organization where they're expected to do what they're told. Even government executives have thought their jobs were to make sure nothing changes, make sure nothing goes wrong, work by the book. Gore has been an absolute madman over the principle of empowerment-empowering workers, listening to them. I think with his constant support, and with support of a lot of people at NPR and around government, we've really changed things quite a bit for government workers.
Q: How should government executives and employees approach their work in a non-industrial-age government?
A: Focus on their mission, listen to their customers-listen to their subordinates, in the case of government executives. Traditionally, the workers serve the bosses and the bosses serve their bosses. We're changing that to the bosses serve the workers and the workers serve the customers.
There are lots of examples. One is the story of an [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] inspector who told Gore that she had signed up to protect American workers. OSHA had a 400-page inspectors' manual that described exactly what the inspectors did and how to report violations, how to get paperwork approved. They were just in the business of producing paperwork. The inspector had the knowledge to be able to walk into a workplace and say there's a dangerous situation there and in most cases the bosses would want to fix it because it's bad business when your workers get hurt. But instead of saying there's an unsafe situation, her rule book said you have to document this, you have to write it up, you have to get your boss to approve it. Instead of visiting a lot of workplaces, helping clear up hazards, she was going by the book, preparing for court cases that usually never came. So, getting rid of this old 400-page handbook and empowering the inspectors has led to real tangible improvements in worker safety. If you ask the inspectors about it, they just think it's great, they think they're making a much bigger contribution than they used to.
Q: In a recent speech, you suggested that the trick to improving government service is to reduce risk, not take big risks. What did you mean by that?
A:It's silly to tell federal workers that you have to take more risks, you have to stick your neck out. It's like teaching a pig to sing. What we need to tell them is that we have to do our jobs a lot better, and there are tricks you can use to reduce risk, like asking customers what they care about. For managers, it's asking workers, 'How can we do this better?'
Q: What is your fondest memory of your days at NPR?
A: I think maybe the thing that made the biggest impression on me was about a year ago. I was meeting with some Food and Drug Administration people in Chicago, and talked to some old, veteran inspectors. At NPR we have been preaching collaboration with the regulated community, partnerships with business. Rather than rewarding people for how many tickets they give out, agencies should reward them for how much they foster compliance with the rules.
This experienced inspector was explaining how they used to grade her on number of violations, and now they don't even keep track of how many citations she gives out. I asked her, 'Don't you miss the thrill of catching someone doing something wrong?' And she said, 'Oh no. When I catch someone in a violation, I know we failed.'
The reason this made me feel so good is because that person has learned something that won't depend on Al Gore or Bob Stone for her to keep doing it. She knows there's a better way of serving the American public, and she's not going to go back to the old way.
I have met IRS people, Customs inspectors, OSHA inspectors, NASA engineers who say, 'We'll never go back to the old way of doing business. They can't make us.'
Q: What is left to be done in the reinvention movement?
A: The great unfinished task is that we've only begun to tap the ability and creativity and enthusiasm of the workers.
Organizations that really do well at that are just fabulously successful. Southwest Airlines does that. NASA is doing that.
NASA's doing things that NASA people would have sworn were impossible five years ago, like landing a rover on Mars and deploying it in an exploration mission in one-third the time and one-tenth the cost that they had estimated it would take.
'Faster, better, cheaper' is NASA's mantra. [NASA Administrator] Dan Goldin told the people running the Mars lander, 'This is how much money you have. It's one-tenth what you asked for.' And they said 'We can't do it for that.' And he said 'You have to.'
Just the retro-rockets would have used up the entire budget doing things the old way, so they pretty quickly figured they couldn't afford retro-rockets. So they designed a 'beach ball.' The whole lander was enclosed in a great big inflated ball. It hit the Martian surface, bounced, bounced again, bounced a couple times more and stopped. Those people would have sworn they couldn't accomplish that mission, but NASA was able to tap their creativity in ways that hadn't been done before.
Q: Has the message of empowerment reached everywhere in government?
A: There are still parts of government, not so much agencies, but places within agencies, that haven't gotten the message. There are people, particularly in the law enforcement and regulatory agencies, who still think that the private sector is the adversary and people will cheat you if you cut them some slack.
If you expect everybody to cheat you, a lot of bad things happen. One of the bad things is you spend a lot of time abusing people who wouldn't dream of cheating you. The other is you don't have enough time to go after the cheaters, because there are cheaters, whether it's environmental violators, food handlers or unethical employers. Of course, there's a role for government in policing those areas.
Q: What parting advice do you have for federal executives?
A: My advice is: You can make a difference. Don't wait for your boss to tell you it's OK. Your job is to lead, not to wait for your boss to lead. A lot of government executives don't need that advice, but I guess we can all benefit by it.