he 2000 presidential election sharply focuses two separate questions on the Clinton administration's "reinventing government" campaign. If Al Gore becomes President, what will the next phase of reinventing government look like? If someone else wins-Bill Bradley, George W. Bush, John McCain or a dark horse-what will become of reinventing government?
The answer to the second question is easier. If anyone other than Al Gore sits in the Oval Office in January 2001, one of the new President's early acts will be to abolish the National Partnership for Reinventing Government. However, that will have to lead to its re-creation (under a different name) soon thereafter. The pressures for reforming federal management won't evaporate.
That takes us to the first question. If the federal management reform movement will continue in some form, what will that be? Can the bureaucratic culture really change? Or are we doomed endlessly to push the rock of reform up the hill of reality, only to have it roll back and squash the efforts?
Gore and REGO
Reinventing government-REGO for short-had remarkable legs during the Clinton administration. Gore devoted a notable amount of energy to the issue over a very long time. The fact that he stood by REGO despite many distractions-the impeachment crisis was just the biggest of them-says something fundamental about his commitment to the cause.
But things would surely be different in a Gore administration. Even though we call our President "chief executive," he spends little time managing. No matter how much Gore might care about REGO, as President he would have to hand primary responsibility for reinvention over to someone else-or take the risky step of making management a centerpiece of his presidency.
The political stakes have proven small. Despite seven years of effort, REGO has barely penetrated voters' consciousness. Only a little more than half of those surveyed in a June 1998 Scripps Howard News Service poll had heard of "reinventing government." Most respondents-61 percent-did not believe that government had become more efficient, and 59 percent did not believe that the Clinton administration had reduced the number of federal employees. In fact, federal employment shrank by 351,000 positions-more than one of every seven workers.
Earlier phases of REGO had failed to hold off the Republican "Contract with America" siege. The much-touted notion that the federal bureaucracy was smaller than at any time since the Kennedy administration provided little bang in the 1996 presidential election. REGO has, at least so far, played only a tiny role in the 2000 campaign-limited mostly to journalists probing it for keys to Gore's character.
REGO After Gore
What if Bush, Bradley or someone else wins the election? No non-Gore presidency would publicly embrace the REGO campaign, so the NPR and the parade of Gore's "Hammer Awards" would surely end.
But that only sharpens the problem. Congress has passed the Government Performance and Results Act, which requires agencies to write strategic plans and measure results. The new administration will have to make sure that agencies do this correctly, if only to avoid sniping from Congress. That means, at a minimum, that the President will have to ensure that the Office of Management and Budget continues to invest in government performance.
Even more important is the predictable unpredictability of management fiascoes. As reporters become more aggressive and television newsmagazines have more hours to fill, the hunt for government scandals continues to grow. "Waste-fraud-and-abuse" has become a single word in the media.
In an institution as complex as government, opportunities for scandals are ever-present. Government, after all, gets only society's hard problems-the ones the private sector doesn't want or can't handle. It also gets the public's impossible dream: an endless appetite for ambitious federal programs along with an endless demand for tax cuts.
Management scandals-such as slow responses to natural disasters, abuses by tax collectors or the failure of a missile system-are the one predictable feature of the federal government. Add to that the real definition of waste, fraud and abuse-a program that benefits someone else-and one thing is clear: Whether the new president wants to "reinvent" government or not, the winner will sooner or later be faced with the political necessity of doing something to improve the way government works.
The nation's economy adds a wild card to the deal. Through skill, cooperation with the Federal Reserve and a fair measure of luck, the Clinton administration has enjoyed a long stream of economic success. But odds are increasing that the next administration will have to deal with sluggish growth, at least for a while. If that happens, the pressures for management reform will grow, to squeeze more services from tax revenues.
Thus, whoever succeeds Bill Clinton will, sooner or later, have to craft his own brand of "reinventing government." That is the lesson from governments throughout the world, virtually all of which have launched major management reforms.
It also means that the new President will have to cope with the political dilemma of management reform. While reform has become unavoidable, there's still little evidence that it provides great political reward. Thus, the new President might find himself with few incentives for continuing the Gore effort, yet little alternative but to do so.
It would be tempting to chalk up the inevitability of reform (and the predictability of its failure) to the entrenched bureaucratic culture. It isn't difficult to convince cynical Americans that government bureaucrats are in business for themselves more than to do the people's business.
Even in the heat of the Gore REGO campaign, some stories seemed to support the cynicism. In 1997, Republicans savaged the IRS-and the Clinton administration-for mistreating citizens. Congressional hearings spotlighted problems ranging from armed agents busting up businesses to citizens who couldn't get straight answers to tax questions. The Republicans quickly forced the Clinton administration to accept a new quasi-private governance board to run the tax agency. In fact, they were so successful so quickly that the issue had nearly evaporated before the 1998 congressional elections.
The administration responded by bringing in a new commissioner, Charles Rossotti, and launching a major effort to become more customer-friendly. It created one of the government's jazziest Web sites, with lively graphics and quirky news stories. The IRS started providing tax regulations in plain English, set up "problem-solving days" to give taxpayers face-to-face relief and expanded its telephone hot-line service.
In short, the IRS scrambled to finally meet the REGO mandate to become more customer-friendly. The agency might not have avoided the crisis had it moved more aggressively much earlier, but it surely would have defused the conflict and robbed it of its political value. Instead, the IRS found itself a poster child for failure to take reform seriously.
Likewise, the Energy Department has been rocked by charges that sloppy handling of nuclear secrets has provided the Chinese government with access to some of the nation's most sensitive technology. Congressional Republicans, led by Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., blamed the Clinton administration, though it wasn't clear whether the Chinese had actually stolen secrets from the nation's labs and whether the security problems started before Clinton took office. What actually happened didn't matter-the administration's congressional critics became determined to reorganize DOE to prevent future security lapses.
In mid-1999, Congress created a new office to oversee DOE security. The plan was to separate the job of safeguarding nuclear materials and secrets from the job of manufacturing and maintaining weapons. In part, Congress didn't trust the people who managed the nuclear complex to protect its secrets. And in part, some Republicans relished the chance to embarrass the Clinton administration. But Clinton outflanked them and appointed DOE Secretary Bill Richardson to head the new office, at least temporarily. The Republicans, predictably, were furious.
Beyond the partisan sparring, however, lay a tough question. Would the new office actually promote national security? The employee suspected of sloppily handling the secrets actually worked for the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a facility long operated by the University of California under contract to DOE. The department's problems stemmed from a 50-year-old culture of relying on contractors to do its work. Scrambling the headquarters structure is likely to have little impact on the contractors and might actually distract top officials from leading the kind of culture change that the scandal shows is needed.
The IRS and DOE had similar problems: dysfunctional bureaucratic culture, slowness in launching reforms, a crisis that brought demands for revolutionary change, and the difficulty of catching up. The two agencies' stories drive home two enduring truths about reinventing government. First, it has been a highly variable effort. Despite large (and often justified) claims of success in some agencies, others lay largely untouched. Some of the administration's own appointees have been uninterested in following the REGO plan. Second, the biggest federal management problems during the Clinton years occurred in the agencies where Gore's REGO penetrated the least. If reinvention failed to produce political gains for the Clinton administration, non-reinvention often provoked embarrassing crises.
Reinventors elsewhere, however, proved far more successful in transforming their agencies. For example, James Lee Witt turned around the famously troubled Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA had long been a lightning rod for criticism. Every hurricane, earthquake, tornado and flood, the joke went, brought two disasters: one when the event occurred, and the second when FEMA arrived. Hurricane Andrew, which devastated South Florida in 1992, was FEMA's Waterloo. Critics charged the agency with malfeasance in getting aid to victims and President Bush found himself fighting off charges of mismanagement in the heat of the election campaign.
Witt quickly seized the reins. He stood in the agency's doorway one morning to greet employees and signal his commitment to change. He worked with his staff to improve FEMA's management systems. He built closer ties with state and local officials, as well as voluntary organizations, private companies and other federal agencies. He rebuilt FEMA's operations from its customers' point of view.
FEMA's new strategic plan, in fact, points to a radical change: Instead of responding to disasters, FEMA now pledges to "proacatively help communities and citizens avoid becoming disaster victims." Instead of delivering disaster assistance, FEMA focuses on coordinating a broad disaster relief strategy with responsibility shared by a large number of partners.
When tornadoes hit the Midwest, an earthquake rattled the Los Angeles area and Hurricane Floyd clobbered North Carolina last summer, FEMA's partnership model got more relief to victims faster. News stories on agency mismanagement disappeared. FEMA's managers had transformed the agency's culture as a strategy for transforming its mission.
Likewise, General Services Administrator David J. Barram turned that agency on its head. GSA had a reputation as the federal government's stodgy landlord and supply warehouse. Labels like "bloated" and "red tape" accompanied most stories about its operations.
But Barram, with nearly a quarter century of experience in Silicon Valley, brought a new style to his agency. He pledged not just to satisfy but to "thrill" GSA's customers in other agencies. With a straight face, he said, "We want our customers to wake up each morning and think, 'Boy, am I glad that GSA exists!'" He launched "changemasters" to help administrators master new management approaches. Most of all, he committed GSA to a culture of service.
The campaign led to negotiations that brought a 68 percent discount on airline coach fares for federal travelers and long-distance telephone rates for federal offices of just 4 cents per minute-so cheap they're not even worth auditing, GSA officials claim. The agency's award-winning "GSA Advantage!" Web site (www.
fss.gsa.gov/cgi-bin/advwel) offers federal employees easy online access to a million products. The quiet word in the agencies is that this indeed is a new GSA.
Making Change Stick
If DOE and the IRS show the painful costs of falling behind in the reinvention race, FEMA and GSA show that strong leaders can indeed change bureaucratic culture. The struggles in DOE and the IRS, moreover, underline why government reform has become inevitable. Holding onto the status quo courts similar disasters. Coping with the rapidly changing social and political environment, on the other hand, requires aggressive leadership.
The real story of Gore's REGO, in fact, is not so much of reinventing the bureaucracy from the White House. Rather, it's about getting the right leaders into place in agencies throughout the government, focusing them on real reform, sweeping away at least some dysfunctional bureaucratic debris, and turning them loose on the front lines of reinvention. It rarely works completely, but it beats the alternatives.
That's why a continuation of REGO-in some form, perhaps under a new name-is inevitable, no matter who voters elect President in the fall. Predicting its form is tougher. Bush hails from a state where reform has been a mantra for more than a decade, and good management has been a strong Republican suit since Herbert Hoover. Bradley hasn't shown as much taste for management as for policy, but he won't long be able to pursue his health care agenda without solving the "big bureaucracy" label that killed the Clinton effort. Gore has, if nothing else, been a relentless reinventor of reinvention.
No matter what, government reform won't go away. Scandals have a way of forcing the reform agenda, and the pressures for boosting government's productivity are inexorable. The lessons of the Clinton years show that success requires a careful mix of top-level champions and front-line leaders. But-and this is most reassuring of all-the lessons also show that government's bureaucratic culture can be changed.