Experiments in Excellence

They evoke a host of different metaphors: "islands of excellence," "catalysts for change," "antibodies," even "leper colonies." The person responsible for them has described them as "bonfires," saying, "If you want to create a revolution, start a hundred fires and fan the flames."

"They" are the reinvention laboratories sponsored by Vice President Al Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government (NPR). Bob Stone, a former top NPR official, gets credit for the idea. He was inspired by the success of the Defense Department's Model Installations program, which he helped foster when he was deputy assistant secretary for installations at the Pentagon. Under the Model Installations program, DoD base commanders were permitted to waive certain categories of rules and regulations in return for improved operational efficiency.

The same idea serves as the basis of the reinvention lab program. Offices throughout government are eligible to apply for lab status in order to test new approaches to delivering service. Sponsors of the program hoped improvements identified at the labs would be copied in other organizations, helping create a more innovative, less risk-averse culture in government.

After five years, the evidence as to whether the lab program has been a success is mixed. On one hand, more than 340 units have been designated as laboratories, including, recently, the entire Veterans Health Administration. Many individual labs have achieved substantial success, and a few have leveraged broad change. On the other hand, many labs have either been shut down or simply linger on without much activity. "The fires haven't grown and spread as much as I want," Stone acknowledges.

Part of the problem may be that the labs are an anomaly-an attempt at "bottom-up" change within a predominantly "top-down" culture-and have been treated accordingly. "When we start fires, they don't spread like they should," says Jim Schmid of the Army's Soldier and Biological Chemical Command (SBCCOM), one of the earliest and most active of the labs. "The bureaucracy has a well-financed bucket brigade."

'Beta' Reinvention

Another problem relates to how NPR itself has structured-or not structured-the lab program. According to Stone, the lab idea was conceived in 1993 as a "beta version" of reinvention, and was launched with a minimum of structure.

In a March 1993 letter to agency heads, Gore defined a reinvention lab as "a place that cuts through 'red tape,' exceeds customer expectations, and unleashes innovations for improvements from its employees." That definition was sufficiently loose to allow virtually any activity deemed suitable by a department or agency to become a lab. One consequence has been to stimulate a great deal of activity under the lab rubric. Another has been that many initiatives involving only minor changes to processes and procedures have become labs.

Some who are pursuing more radical change bemoan this development. "In the Army case, they asked who wants to become a lab, and everybody who raised their hand became a lab. There was a dilution of organizations that were devoted to change," says Schmid. He says labs striving for fundamental change are regarded as troublemakers because they press agencies to loosen the waiver process or give labs more authority.

Schmid argues that the NPR should have stuck with the approach it took early on, when, he says, would-be labs were told, "You have to demonstrate to us that you are worthy of becoming a lab by showing us the things you have tried to do and been stymied at." Instead, he says, NPR took the approach, "We don't want to control this, we don't want to limit it; we want to empower departments to do this on their own."

Jeffrey Goldstein, chief of internal review at the Defense Logistics Agency and former reinvention lab coordinator for NPR, agrees that lab candidates should have to meet a higher standard. "There was no process before I got there," Goldstein says. "Basically anyone who wanted to become a lab was encouraged."

Goldstein endorses the use of "framework documents" between NPR and individual agencies specifying a process for designating, tracking and ultimately decommissioning labs. Agencies would be required to create agreements with labs identifying goals and specifying how progress toward those goals would be measured.

Structured Experimentation

Some agencies, including the Army and the departments of Justice and Interior, have their own highly formalized processes for creating reinvention labs. In Justice, for example, each lab is guided by an executive advisory group consisting of representatives of participating agencies. Lab leaders are provided training in teamwork and problem solving, and each lab must submit a charter listing issues to be addressed, proposed changes and anticipated outcomes. Each lab also must develop a business plan, create a performance measurement framework and report quarterly on its progress.

The Secure Electronic Network for Travelers' Rapid Inspection (SENTRI) lab initiated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service has benefited from Justice's structured approach. SENTRI's objective was to expedite processing citizens who regularly cross the U.S.-Mexican border. Bob Mocny, now special assistant to the deputy commissioner of the INS, oversaw the project. One problem he faced was gaining the cooperation of people not only at INS, but also at the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and other Justice agencies. The response of some of these people, Mocny says, was, "Bob Mocny, who is he? I don't have to do it. There was inaction on the part of some people; they had other priorities; this wasn't the biggest one." As a consequence of a conversation with his brother, who also works at Justice, Mocny became aware of the Justice Performance Review and the lab program. He applied to JPR and was accepted.

Justice sponsorship and approval, all the way up to the deputy attorney general, helped Mocny get the cooperation he needed. "Becoming a lab gave [the project] an air of importance," he says. "The Vice President and deputy attorney general were aware of it and wanted to see it happen."

Mocny assembled a 14-member team representing six different Justice agencies. They developed a new system, including a special entry lane at Otay Mesa, a border crossing point near San Diego for SENTRI program participants. The participants, having been carefully screened, are provided transponders for their vehicles. Upon approaching the gate, the transponder triggers a computer which brings up information for the inspector on the people authorized to enter the country in that particular vehicle. The average waiting time in the SENTRI lane is one minute, and since the lane was created the waiting time at the regular lanes at Otay Mesa has dropped from 25 minutes to less than 12 minutes. The program is now being replicated at four other sites along the southern border.

'Hill of Beans'

A key question about the lab program is whether such achievements in various reinvention labs constitute the kind of breakthrough change required to achieve long-term goals of lower costs, enhanced service and changed government culture. Even at Justice, with its highly regarded lab program, three of its six active labs (Automated Personnel Processing, Electronic Document Exchange, U.S. Marshals Service Accreditation) deal with matters that, while important, will not result in fundamental change in how agencies operate.

One problem is that the inherently top-down, centralized nature of the federal government often precludes giving individual units the degree of autonomy that radical change requires. The reinvention lab at the Army Research Laboratory (ARL) provides an example.

The NPR's Stone and others cite the ARL as one of the most successful labs. ARL teams have won four Hammer Awards and have been nominated for a fifth. But Ed Brown, head of the Special Projects Office at the ARL, says being a lab "hasn't meant a hill of beans to us." Brown contends that although lab status has helped in obtaining waivers from regulations, most have pertained to relatively peripheral matters. Brown says that ARL has been unable to get waivers in the two areas that impose the most critical constraints: personnel and budget.

Ironically, two of the rules that ARL would like to waive are a direct consequence of the NPR itself. ARL has asked for relief from the Defense Department's Priority Placement Program, which was designed to help employees who have lost their jobs during reductions in force brought on by the Clinton administration's downsizing effort. Under the program, "if someone has been RIF'd, you have to take that person," Brown says. "The problem is PPP gave us people who were not minimally qualified. We said we have stringent requirements. They decided, 'You don't need the expertise you say you do.' It has done an enormous amount of damage."

The other rule Brown would like waived relates to the proportion of high-level positions at ARL. As a consequence of the NPR's drive to reduce the governmentwide ratio of supervisors to employees from 1-to-7 to 1-to-15, ARL has a cap on the number of GS-14 and GS-15 positions it is allowed. The problem, says Brown, is that in a research laboratory, "you get a GS-14 or GS-15 not because you are a supervisor, but because you publish a lot." Also, he says, with more of the lab's work being done under partnership arrangements with private firms, there is a need for more people in higher grades to manage such agreements.

In fact, Brown says, partnership arrangements are "the most fundamental reinvention" the ARL has undertaken. But "NPR had nothing to do with that," he says. "We thought of it ourselves; ran it through the system; worked the politics of it."

Institutionalizing Innovation

Brown argues that reinvention generally and the lab program specifically should be targeted at an organization's core business. "Reinvention is a good thing in concept," he says. But, he adds, "When I ask people, 'Why do you want to be a reinvention lab?' they mumble something; they haven't figured it out. You have to look at your fundamental business. Do you need to make that business better? What crisis are you coming up against? Not, 'I want to be a lab and I'll figure out what to do later.' "

One lab that did look at its fundamental business is the New York Regional Office of the Veterans Benefits Administration. The lab and the former director of the office, Joe Thompson, have gained notoriety for the extent and thoroughness of the changes they made, and because they were one of the few examples of changes at a lab becoming institutionalized across an agency. In contrast with the formal lab application procedures at some agencies, Thompson describes his former unit as largely "self-anointed."

Thompson and his staff used their lab status to change from an assembly-line approach to claims processing to one in which each claim is handled from start to finish by no more than three employees. The office organized employees into self-directed teams and implemented a new performance measurement system that includes indicators of customer satisfaction and employee development. Key elements of the New York approach are now being introduced at VBA regional offices across the country under Thompson's direction in his new position as the Veterans Affairs Department's undersecretary for benefits.

Thompson argues that the key question is not whether the lab program is too highly structured, but whether "the people making decisions [at headquarters] are capable of supporting change and people [in the field] taking initiative." He notes that both structured and unstructured approaches can work "if you have a clear understanding of expectations on both sides." Thompson adds, however, "in my experience, there was a lot of resistance [at headquarters] to things that come out of field locations. There is a tendency to think that anything important, that fundamentally affects operations, needs to originate in Washington."

The Politics of Reinvention

A big part of the challenge the labs face is simply the internal politics of reinvention. Agencies take varying approaches for managing their lab efforts.

The Army has put in place a program that has significantly altered the balance of power between staff units at headquarters and reinvention labs in the field. Any request by a lab for a waiver from a departmental regulation must receive a response within five days. If the waiver is denied, the lab can appeal up the chain of command to the Secretary of the Army.

Although these rules strengthen the hands of the labs in dealing with headquarters, there are limits to the labs' power. The problem, noted one lab representative, is that while "the Secretary of the Army and Secretary of Defense Cohen are truly in favor of this, they've got Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq on their plate. Reinvention isn't at the top of their list." As a consequence, responsibility for overseeing the reinvention effort gets delegated and bureaucratic culture sometimes takes over.

An example is a statement on submissions for waivers from regulations recently issued by Army Secretary Louis Caldera. While Caldera endorsed the lab concept in the statement, he also issued a set of revised reinvention procedures, one of which requires the "senior legal officer's formal review of the request." In the past, legal officers could sign off on requests without conducting formal reviews. The change makes the waiver process more cumbersome and gives the hierarchy a new basis for rejecting a request.

Col. William Jones, the Army's director of management and head of its reinvention program, insists that no change in policy or procedure was intended. He says that if some of the labs have misconstrued the new guidelines, "we will clarify it with them."

Changing the Rules

While battles over waivers and policy directives are the stuff of bureaucratic life, the very existence of such battles belies the intent of NPR, which was to change the rules of the game in basic ways. Bob Stone says he hopes for the day when "reinvention labs and model installations disappear because there is no need for them anymore." One agency that approximates such a state is the General Services Administration.

GSA's aggressive approach to reinvention arose out of necessity. The initial NPR report released in 1993 recommended an end to GSA's monopoly status in procuring office space and supplies for agencies. There was a recognition within the agency that fundamental changes were required if GSA was to survive. GSA set up 13 reinvention labs to kick-start the transformation process.

The lab in the Denver region was granted a charter authorizing the regional commissioner to waive any internal regulations not based in law. The result was a dramatic change in the leasing process. The office moved away from a checklist approach to a focus on customer service. Realty specialists were given substantial autonomy and told to negotiate lease deals using "common business judgment." As a result, the lab cut the average time to arrange leases by 50 percent-and 60 percent for projects under 10,000 square feet, which make up 70 percent of the office's workload.

In 1995, GSA's Public Buildings Service convened all 750 of its leasing specialists in Chicago for a conference called, "Can't Beat GSA Leasing." At that conference, the three regional offices (including Denver) that had been experimenting with new approaches to leasing shared their experiences with the others. Many of the agency's old leasing procedures were abandoned and a new model representing an amalgam of the ideas tested at the three labs was adopted agencywide.

"It changed the world," says Paul Prouty, who guided the changes to leasing procedures in Denver. "It is one of the most successful ventures of any agency. It was high-risk. We did the technical stuff but also did things to people's minds."

Whither the Labs?

In part because so few agencies have matched the extent of GSA's change in culture, NPR is now rethinking the lab program. Among the changes is a planned shift in authority for designating labs from NPR to individual agencies.

The rationale, according to Morley Winograd, Vice President Gore's senior staff assistant in charge of reinvention, is to encourage agencies to take ownership of the program. As an NPR initiative, he says, labs were too often regarded as "renegade operations."

Another factor is that NPR simply has too much on its plate to adequately attend to the lab program. A host of other reinvention initiatives over the years has drained limited staff time and energy. "NPR itself seemed to lose interest in these laboratories," says Alan Balutis, who was involved in identifying and selecting the reinvention labs at the Commerce Department, where he now serves as deputy chief information officer. "The whole reinvention effort has evolved to focus on high-impact agencies, performance-based organizations and a host of things like that."

A key question raised by delegating the lab program to the agencies is whether it will cause them to take the lab concept less seriously. Many agencies no longer even acknowledge the existence of reinvention laboratories. NPR's ownership of the program at least conveyed that the Vice President was interested in the idea. If NPR leaves the impression that it is getting out of the lab business, what little momentum the program has gained over the past five years could be lost.

James R. Thompson is an assistant professor of public administration at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

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