Top aides to Bush and Gore talk federal reform

ksaldarini@govexec.com

While many Americans know where Presidential candidates George Bush and Al Gore stand on the Elian Gonzalez situation, few have heard substantive talk about what the two candidates would do to improve government performance.

The candidates themselves haven't opened up much yet, but a top policy adviser from each camp was on hand Wednesday at a Council for Excellence in Government conference to discuss Bush's and Gore's positions on government reform.

Elaine Kamarck, a senior advisor to the Gore campaign, indicated that the Vice President would use technology to improve government service. "The government as a whole is far behind the private sector in using technology. It requires a fundamental rethinking of the way government does business," she said.

Former Indianapolis mayor and Bush advisor Stephen Goldsmith cited structural problems as among the government's biggest problems. "We still deliver government like the way we built automobiles in the 1900s," he said. Technology, decentralization and public-private partnerships will help get rid of such mass-produced delivery of services, Goldsmith said.

Goldsmith, a longtime proponent of government decentralization, said the idea is to give people the authority to accomplish their goals. Decentralization is "maximum authority at the lowest geographical level," he said. In order to achieve broad government reform, executives should "inoculate those who take risk, and reward those who try," he said. Kamarck agreed that government managers should be encouraged to do things differently than the status quo, calling stagnant agency thinking the "self-inflicted wounds of bureaucracy."

The 1993 Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) is a first step in the right direction, Kamarck said. Both Kamarck and Goldsmith agreed that getting Congress and agencies to agree on performance goals will be one of the act's biggest challenges. Kamarck encouraged the conference attendees to be patient with agencies and with Congress as they begin to use GPRA, noting that establishing common goals is a complex political maneuver. Goldsmith agreed that it's tricky to encourage Congress to use GPRA. "I have a series of examples on why this doesn't work, but I'm all for it," he joked.

If lawmakers and agency heads can agree on a smaller number of goals that can constantly evolve, then the two parties should be able to make GPRA work, Goldsmith said. Kamarck said agreements on goals should start at the top, with the White House setting clear priorities and letting the government make them happen.

Neither adviser was able to answer questions about how their candidate would position his Vice President, staff and First Lady, but both had ideas on how the government can continue to improve the quality of its people.

Recruiting in the federal government is an issue of pay and authority, Goldsmith said. To some degree, people are willing to forgo pay if they believe they have a chance to make a difference, he said. That belief comes with increased authority, particularly with political appointees. Kamarck said she doesn't blame potential appointees from shying away from public service due to the partisan animosity that has taken over nominations and appointments. Congress, in general, hasn't treated political appointees very well, she said. "It would be nice if we could cool that down."

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