Numbers Game

The process of ginning up a reform total has become an end in itself.

Here's a little quiz: What do the following numbers represent?

  • $424 billion
  • $108 billion
  • $88 billion

Those are the amounts of money that Presidents Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush, respectively, pledged they could slash from the budget by cutting waste, fraud and abuse in the federal bureaucracy-in four years or less. Reagan's Grace Commission, in fact, projected that its $424 billion could be realized within three years if all its recommendations were adopted. By the year 2000, savings would total a whopping $1.9 trillion per year, the commission said.

If that were the case, then we wouldn't be worrying about that pesky budget deficit stretching ever skyward. But the fact that it demonstrably was not the case doesn't faze candidates for the highest office in the land. The temptation to put a dollar figure-ranging from really big to astronomical-on the savings to be had in simply running the bureaucracy better is almost irresistible. Among recent presidents only George H.W. Bush was able to restrain himself from declaring a big-bucks war on waste.

Still, the numbers also show that confidence in the notion that there are huge amounts of money to be carved out of the federal bureaucracy is apparently dwindling. President Bush's campaign pledge to save $88 billion, largely by exposing federal jobs to competition from the private sector, pales in comparison to the Grace Commission cost-cutting extravaganza. And the Bush team seems to get more realistic by the day. The administration's projected savings from the competitive sourcing effort over the next three to five years total only $1.1 billion.

But do you think any of this will stop Democratic standard-bearer John Kerry from coming out with his number any day now? I don't either. He's already feinted in this direction. In an April speech at Georgetown University, Kerry unveiled a plan to freeze the federal travel budget, reduce oil royalty exemptions for drilling on federal lands and cut 100,000 federal contractor jobs. "We'll streamline government agencies and commissions and reduce out-of-control administrative costs by 5 percent," Kerry said. "And when we're done, the federal government will be smaller but smarter, more effective and less expensive."

It's only a small step from there to attaching a big overall dollar figure to the Kerry brand of government reform. So here's a piece of advice-well, more of a plea, actually-for the senator from Massachusetts. Just don't do it. There's simply no percentage in it.

In the real world, the process of ginning up a reform number has become an end in itself. The follow-through plainly never adds up, for a variety of reasons: Interest groups turn out to love many of the programs targeted as waste. Congress shows a distinct lack of interest in initiatives that weren't invented on Capitol Hill. And federal managers come up with creative ways to pay lip service to presidential marching orders while minimizing their real-world impact. (Witness the recent discovery that of the 169 job competitions the Forest Service had completed under the Bush administration's competitive sourcing effort, 78 involved fewer than two full-time equivalent positions.)

Indeed, recent would-be reformers have had to deal with the postmodern reality that most stakeholders in the management reform process are well aware that presidential interest in trying to squeeze blood from the bureaucratic stone almost invariably flags. When President Clinton launched his National Performance Review in 1993, he insisted the effort would "not produce another report just to gather dust in some warehouse. We have enough of them already." I know this because I looked up the quote in my dusty copy of the National Performance Review that sits within my personal warehouse of management reform reports.

So, Sen. Kerry, if you want to be truly daring, don't promise any savings at all from attacking mismanagement. Instead, while nobody's looking, find the people who really know how to make things work better in government and turn them loose. They might just knock our socks off.

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