Revamping Reinvention

Faith Healers,

By Brian Friel

April 1998
SPECIAL SECTION

Revamping Reinvention

On its fifth anniversary, the National Performance Review is changing its name, vision and focus.

By Anne Laurent
alaurent@govexec.com

Government reinventors have been feeling disenchanted over the last year. Customers have been embraced, regulations have been reduced, staffing has been cut. As they say in reinvention-speak, the low-hanging fruit has been harvested and momentum has waned. Backers of the National Performance Review have been anxious for the "next big thing," without knowing quite what it is. "People were no longer sure, having accomplished so many of their objectives, that their work still had meaning and importance beyond just them," says Morley Winograd, who took over as NPR director in December.

The Vice President's March 1996 pledge to create performance-based organizations (PBOs) that would "toss out the restrictive rules that keep them from doing business like a business" raised reinventors' hopes. But the three key PBO nominees-the Patent and Trademark Office, Defense Commissary Agency and St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation-haven't gotten out of the starting blocks. The House passed PBO legislation for the patent office, and a bill making the office an independent corporation is pending in the Senate, but the 1997 NPR report contained nary a mention of the once-vaunted concept.

The January 1997 Blair House Papers, Vice President Gore's "little red book" for agency heads and Cabinet secretaries, excited government's cultural revolutionaries by calling on leaders to empower front-line workers, flatten hierarchies, get out of Washington, and talk to customers. But it hasn't been easy to measure success against those exhortations.

Now, just in time for reinvention's fifth birthday, comes the new, improved National Partnership for Reinventing Government. Under Winograd, the reinvented NPR has altered its vision and broadened its mission. Wary reinventors are watching closely to see whether NPR II succeeds where other revampings have fallen short.

REGO Redux

The reinventing movement has changed its stripes several times since it began in 1993. Its first iteration-the review and downsizing phase-concentrated on cataloging how government worked, or didn't, and proposing a laundry list of potential fixes ranging from the minute to the mighty. This stage also saw the unveiling of the Clinton administration's downsizing plan and the eventual expansion of that plan by Congress. Indeed, the cutting of 332,000 federal jobs to date, has been one of the Vice President's chief reinvention success stories.

Reinventing Government I hit the rocks after Republicans engulfed Congress in 1994. Hoping to seize back the initiative from the government-bashing GOP, Clinton and Gore launched REGO II, an attempt to beat the Republicans at their own agency-closing game by proposing deep cutbacks and mergers among departments and a decision tree for identifying businesses the federal government ought to offload. The effort fell short of remaking government, but it caused massive reaction in some agencies-the General Services Administration virtually remade itself and the Office of Personnel Management workforce has been reduced by nearly half, for example. Popular backlash against the partial government shutdowns in 1995 and early 1996 muted the attack on agencies, however, and ultimately forced Democrats and Republicans to fashion a truce.

Then came the NPR's push for a wholly new form of government agency, the performance-based organization. With its freedom from personnel rules, focus on measuring performance and entrepreneurial slant, the concept won favor from reinventors seeking levers to make big changes as opposed to the more gradualist NPR approach of spotlighting and celebrating smaller, isolated reforms. "I wish PBOs had had more life," says Paul Light, director of the Public Policy Program at The Pew Charitable Trusts. "They were a pretty good idea. They dealt with statute and structure and sought to cleave off agencies and give them statutory exceptions and change the civil service rules, but they got absolutely nowhere. Since then, it's all gone back to exhortation because that's all Congress is going to allow."

America @ Our Best

Not true, says Winograd. In fact, NPR has restated its goals, narrowed its focus and taken on the daunting task of reversing Americans' distaste for government. The reinvention team's new vision is "America @ Our Best," a faux e-mail address designed to emphasize the growing role of technology in government. NPR's mission has grown, too. Once the NPR sought simply to "reinvent government to work better, cost less." Now it has added a promise to "get results Americans care about" in time for the 21st century.

In pursuit of those results, reinventionaries plan to focus on partnership among federal agencies, between levels of government, and with groups, organizations and even businesses that care about the NPR's eight goals. The ultimate measuring stick set by Gore for the NPR is no less than reversing the national trend toward growing distrust of government. "We changed the mission to make it clear to all involved in the reinvention process that we were trying to give the American people a tangible feeling their government was better," Winograd says. "We could sense government was performing more efficiently. We needed to transform the customers' experience."

To accomplish these heady goals, NPR has reorganized into eight teams focused on partnering with federal agencies, state and local governments, the private sector and citizen organizations to:

  • Deliver hassle-free service.
  • Create a safer, healthier America.
  • Develop stronger and safer communities and families.
  • Make the economy stronger.
  • Technologically transform America.
  • Engage Americans in a conversation about reinventing government.
  • Create the most well-managed government in history.
  • Model the office of the future.
NPR vows to put 80 percent of its energy into helping a group of 32 "high-impact" federal agencies reinvent themselves to improve customer service over the next three years. "NPR had identified 32 agencies whose interactions represent 90 percent of the transactions Americans have with the federal government," Winograd says. "If we don't focus them on customer satisfaction, we won't get it." Following the partnership theme, the NPR is considering pulling the high-impact agencies together into a sort of affinity group to work through the challenges of customer service, he adds.

Exhortation and Executive Orders

Though this latest reworking of reinvention isn't the first, it could be the last. Most observers agree that as goes Gore, so goes reinvention, and should Gore lose his bid for the presidency in 2000, they expect reinvention to go down as well. Many see NPR's realignment as an attempt to position the NPR for a Gore campaign. Winograd, a key player in the Democratic Leadership Conference who ran then-Sen. Gore's presidential campaign in Michigan in 1988, acknowledges that NPR will become part of the campaign. "NPR will be reviewed as if it demonstrates the Vice President's ability to lead, his fiscal understanding of government, can he run a large organization," Winograd says. "These are threshold questions. If you can't run an organization or be careful with taxpayers' money you're not likely to be elected CEO of the country."

Indeed, the shift in mission to "results Americans care about" and the shift in focus to families and communities, safety and health, and a stronger economy certainly make the reformed NPR sound more like a political policy shop than the old NPR, which was designed to focus not on what government does, but how it does it. But, says Winograd: "We are not a policy shop. Our approach is how to make the process changes to cause those outcomes. Lots of times you need a new policy approach to make process changes. Then we turn those suggestions over to the policy shops like the Domestic Policy Council and others."

The big question is how the NPR, lacking policy or budget enforcement authority, can affect policy outcomes it can't control. Until now, the group has relied on moral suasion, celebration and the occasional presidential decree to promote successes in improving agency management. It isn't at all clear how NPR can bridge the chasm between improving customer service-the famous improvements in the Social Security Administration's 800 line, for example-and making Americans safer, healthier and better off economically.

"NPR has recognized people care most about the things they've identified, but those things are more than they could ever digest properly," says Donald Kettl, director of the Center for Public Management at the Brookings Institution and director of the Robert M. La Follette Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Making the economy stronger is in the control of Southeast Asian industrialists and the Federal Reserve and so on, not the NPR." Adds Light: "Customer service standards don't help agencies get better. Half of them still aren't tracking customer satisfaction and wouldn't know a customer if one bit them in the butt. And it is not known how customer standards relate to improving service; 800 line improvement has had no impact on improving the image of government.

"Beyond downsizing, acquisition reform and some reductions in Agriculture Department field offices, this is an effort that has relied on executive orders and exhortation as its main tools," says Light. "But is there any data showing reinvention is saving money or agencies are performing better? No.

"Reinventors decided early on they could not deal with the big problems in government: hierarchy, statutory confusion, failures to modernize information technology, problems with financial management," Light adds. "You can get a lot of short-term activity from exhortation because most people in government want to be high performers, but we still don't have the infrastructure to support a high-performing government."

'Leap of Faith'

In the end, NPR may face an irreconcilable dilemma now that the political stakes for its actions have been raised. "If they try to restrict themselves to what they can really do, it seems mundane and boring, but if they shoot for the big stuff, they can't pull it off," says Kettl. Winograd argues the NPR can affect the policy outcomes it has set as its new goals. "A fundamental leap of faith we had to take was that if you stood for something, were clear about it, and created new possibilities in your work, the net result would be what you set out to do, even though you don't turn the screws of the machine," he says.

For example, to create safer neighborhoods, Winograd suggests the NPR could publicize technological, cultural and process changes made by the New York and Boston police. They include community policing, using statistics and holding police responsible for reducing crime. "There's no new law or policy, but it can change the outcome," he says. He foresees lots more information and success sharing, encouragement, recognition and reward in NPR's future, as well as efforts to get agencies and individuals to see problems in new ways.

Both Winograd and NPR's critics believe that the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act may offer reinvention its greatest leverage, especially because Congress and an agency far stronger than NPR, the Office of Management and Budget, are in charge of enforcement. "The strongest weapon in the reinvention arsenal is GPRA," says Kettl. "It will focus the attention of agencies and Congress by focusing on results, but the NPR hasn't fully embraced it." On the contrary, Winograd says, the National Performance Review helped OMB review Results Act strategic plans and is working with high-impact agencies to "strengthen their goals and create more stretch in them.

"I want to avoid the impression NPR is walking away from performance by changing its name," Winograd says. "We're walking away from the idea of being a reviewer and analyzer toward becoming a partner with agencies." Yet when he is pressed for the measures by which NPR plans to judge its own performance against its own stretch goals, Winograd demurs, saying the staff still is working on them, and offers up the Vice President's hope that the measure will be improved trust in government.

Reinvention-Bashing

But if Winograd isn't ready to measure NPR's performance, others are, and they've already begun finding it wanting.

On the political front, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, has trashed reinvention with relish, choosing the same September day Gore released his fourth annual NPR report to issue failing grades to agencies on their GPRA strategic plans.

In February, Armey released an exhaustive, 200-page General Accounting Office report detailing agency failures in technology, management and duplicative programs. "GAO's overview tears away the rose-colored glasses of the 'reinventing government' crowd," Armey said. "The GAO notebook is a realistic overview of a defective federal government." Reinvention never has won much Hill support even among Democrats, who view it as too closely connected with Gore's presidential aspirations.

A recent story in Scripps Howard newspapers also takes on NPR's proudest accomplishment: downsizing government. Reporter Thomas Hargrove asserts that between 1992 and 1996, though the Clinton administration cut the civil service ranks by 15 percent, the federal payroll grew by 8.2 percent. He also says that the average General Schedule grade has gone up from 8.9 to 9.4, and that the lower grades were disproportionately cut.

OPM argues Hargrove misused their statistics and that, when measured in constant 1992 dollars, total payroll and benefits actually fell during the Clinton years. "You can't talk about payroll without talking about how much more payroll would be up if we had 332,000 more people working for government had [downsizing] initiatives not been implemented," says Winograd.

In addition, he contends, the changing requirements of government work naturally have led to a reduction in lower-graded secretarial and clerk jobs in favor of more specialized and professional career fields, a trend that began in the 1970s, according to OPM.

Despite his problems with the Scripps Howard story, however, Winograd concedes the Vice President has asked the President's Management Council to review agencies' problems in trying to meet Clinton's NPR-inspired 1993 order to halve the number of highly graded supervisors in government and double the supervisor-to-employee ratio from 1-to-7 to 1-to-15.

The trouble stirred by the downsizing discrepancy story is illustrative of NPR's likely future as it is carried into the presidential campaign. The few successes for which it has data probably will be assailed on the numbers, while the bulk of its work will be dismissed as unprovable. What's more, NPR's new attempt to tie itself to issues Americans care about could crumble, too.

"It could give Gore an angle to say he's working on more than just ashtray rules, that reinvention is about something important like families," says Light. "But the risk is the longer reinvention exists, the more you can attach failure to it. Great, the IRS won a Ford Foundation grant for its Telefile system, but look how it's abusing taxpayers."

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