Details, Details

John Kerry hasn't shown much interest in even the basics of management reform.

Earlier this year, the National Treasury Employees Union asked John Kerry to answer some questions about how he intended to lead the mammoth federal bureaucracy if he were elected president. Here's what the Kerry campaign said about the Bush administration's competitive sourcing initiative, under which it has attempted to dramatically increase the number of federal jobs subject to competition from contractors:

"I was very troubled about the Bush administration's directive to contract out 850,000 jobs over three years without public-private competition, which is unfair both to federal employees and to taxpayers."

What's breathtaking about this sentence is that in the course of some 30 words about the most far-reaching, detailed and highly publicized management initiative Bush has unveiled, Kerry manages to get three fundamental facts completely wrong:

  • The Bush team never targeted 850,000 jobs. They-at first, anyway-said they'd put half of all "commercial" jobs in government up for competition. That translates into 425,000 jobs. And in the past year, they've even backed far off that figure.
  • The whole point of the Bush initiative was to make employees compete for the jobs, not to outsource "without public-private competition." You could argue that competitive sourcing is merely a cover for outsourcing (at which point you'd have to deal with the untidy fact that the majority of the competitions conducted so far have been won by federal employees), but you can't argue that competition wasn't the idea.
  • The administration never said agencies were expected to complete the initiative in only three years.
Now, to be fair, Kerry may be unaware that he has even taken a position on competitive sourcing, because the statement was doubtless generated at the staff level. Indeed, it's tempting to wonder exactly how many of Kerry's management promises, detailed by Staff Correspondent Jason Peckenpaugh in this issue, the candidate himself is cognizant of having taken.

Those promises don't add up to much of a management agenda. Kerry has thrown a bone to the unions by pledging to end competitive sourcing, has said he would launch an unprecedented effort to eliminate 100,000 contractor jobs, and has issued a package of proposals for cuts in federal administrative expenses.

He undoubtedly will offer more management-related proposals as the campaign heats up. But campaign officials say it's unlikely the candidate will make management issues the focus of even a single speech.

So what? It's not as though elections are won or lost on these kind of uber-wonky issues. But Kerry is actually treading on dangerous ground here. No Democrat has won the presidency in more than two decades without making a high-profile effort to reform federal management and attack bureaucratic inefficiency. Both of the Democrats who have won since 1980-Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton-made bureaucracy-busting a centerpiece of their campaigns and launched major reform efforts upon taking office. Of those who have lost, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis ended up pegged as big-government-loving liberals, and Al Gore downplayed his association with the Clinton-era management reforms.

These are different times, of course. The old liberal-conservative divide that required Democrats to declare at least some level of independence from bureaucratic interests and big-government aficionados has narrowed.

But there's something more important at stake here than the political value of government reform. Federal management issues are not trivial. From Abu Ghraib prison to outer space, decisions about how to fund, staff, manage and oversee federal operations are literally matters of life and death. They also happen to involve hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer funds. Presidents are at least as likely to be judged by voters-and by history-on their success or failure in getting things done by using the levers of government as on their major policy initiatives.

To devote only scant attention to management issues-and to evince an inability to get even basic facts straight about them-is cause for no small amount of concern.

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