A Thousand Cuts
President Obama's war on waste won't make much of a dent in the deficit. But can it still make a difference?
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1981 story "The Federal Bureaucracy," Associated Press reporter Saul Pett painted the government as an amorphous mass, impossible to tame or organize, an all-encompassing swamp where rules, regulations and organizations bubble up in one place whenever they are forced down in another.
"It is so shapeless you can't diagram it with boxes," Pett wrote, "because after you put the president here and the Congress there and the judiciary in a third place, where in the hell do you put the Ad Hoc Committee for the Implementation of PL89-306? Or the Interdepartmental Screwthread Committee? Or the Interglacial Panel on the Present?" Jimmy Carter, who had been recently voted out of office when Pett's 8,500-word article appeared, had decried "horrible, bloated bureaucracy" on the campaign trail. Once in office, though, he succeeded in shuttering only a few minor organizations, a victory more than offset by his creation of the departments of Energy and Education, plus numerous subagency boards and independent committees.
The executive branch had become a mess, the president complained to Congress, where directives were passed around but never implemented and where work was hopelessly slowed by entrenched do-nothings. "It is easier to promote and transfer incompetent employees than to get rid of them," he said. "It may take as long as three years to fire someone for just cause."
Many people have tried to tame the federal bureaucracy since Carter's day. President Reagan created a commission of private sector executives who said they could save the government $45 billion with a series of initiatives. Most were never implemented. George H.W. Bush's vice president Dan Quayle ran a Council on Competitiveness focused on eliminating excessive regulations and slowing the tide of new ones.
President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore launched the National Performance Review (later called the National Partnership for Reinventing Government), an internal consulting outfit made up of temporarily reassigned federal workers. They labored day after day to try to create a government that would "work better and cost less." President George W. Bush opted to try to shrink government by outsourcing it, insisting any work that could be contracted out to the private sector would be.
Despite the best efforts of five administrations (and many that came before), assaults against government's size, scope and efficiency are as prevalent as ever. And the attacks are coming from both sides of the political aisle. President Obama, for example, couldn't resist taking a swipe at the bureaucracy that he is charged with leading during his most recent State of the Union address.
"There are 12 different agencies that deal with exports," the president complained. "There are at least five different entities that deal with housing policy. Then there's my favorite example: the Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they're in salt water. And I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked."
With his reelection campaign looming and pressure to cut "big government" growing from the right every day, Obama felt the need to launch his own war on bureaucracy and inefficiency. Six months after his address, he unveiled his Campaign to Cut Waste, a hodgepodge of small and large initiatives he said would make government function better, faster, cheaper and more transparently.
Now the question is: If the problem of waste and inefficiency remains even after all the previous initiatives, does Obama's effort stand a chance?
Fraud and Fiddles
Some of the president's initiatives are indeed groundbreaking, most notably a still-developing plan to impose a uniform system of coding, classification and transparency on federal spending and to use programs developed by the intelligence and law enforcement communities to spot grant and contract fraud before checks are cashed. That program will be led by a board modeled after the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, which has managed to keep fraudulent payments from the president's $840 billion stimulus bill below 0.05 percent. That's compared with a governmentwide average of up to 7 percent.
Other White House initiatives are less grand in scope.
Obama tasked Vice President Joe Biden with leading a bottom-up review of agency spending to be hammered out at a series of Cabinet meetings. At the first meeting, in September, Biden unveiled a series of grants to states that he said would save $2 billion by extending new systems for spotting Medicare fraud to state Medicaid offices.
The remainder of the initiatives spawned from those Cabinet meetings so far, though, have been small-ticket items, such as buying gasoline in bulk, increasing the use of teleconferencing to reduce travel expenses and trimming costs of catering at conferences.
Some of the president's waste-cutting proposals have an air of familiarity.
For example, he asked agency heads to review regulations they consider excessive or outdated, a request he called "unprecedented" during a June 29 press conference. Politifact.com, the fact-checking arm of the nonprofit St. Petersburg Times, gave that statement a "pants on fire" rating on its truth-o-meter, noting that every president since Carter had launched some sort of regulatory review, and the Clinton administration succeeded in cutting about 16,000 pages from the Federal Register.
Overall, Obama's initiative to boost efficiency and stamp out waste in government has been handicapped by a lack of clear goals, says Donald Kettl, dean of the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy. In failing to distinguish upfront between efforts that are designed to eradicate in- efficiency and those aimed at cutting spending, he says, the administration has sowed confusion across government about what its specific goals are and what constitutes success in meeting them.
Putting efforts to streamline operations under the halo of budget cutting may be inevitable in today's tight budget climate. But sometimes the amounts of money at stake don't add up to much. Take Obama's plan to reduce the number of government websites, which formed the centerpiece of a video launching the waste-cutting campaign. In the video, Obama pointed to a government-funded website for the Fiddlin' Foresters, a string band made up of Forest Service employees, calling it an example of "pointless, stupid, ridiculous spending." The now-defunct site cost about $125 a year to maintain, according to Fiddlin' Forester Lynn Young. That's probably significantly less than the resources and staff time it took to produce Obama's video.
To be fair, the administration was using the Fiddlin' Foresters' site as just one example of a larger trend in the government's Web footprint, which has mushroomed to nearly 20,000 sites since the early 1990s. Trimming and consolidating national websites could lead to some cost savings in addition to its primary goal of providing clear and consistent information to citizens, says David Pullinger, head of a website-cutting initiative launched by the British government that the Obama team has cited as an influence. But even a program as grand as Britain's, which involved cutting the government's Web presence by 75 percent over five years, is unlikely to make a significant dent in the U.S. budget deficit.
Another plan Obama floated in the video, to halt printing physical copies of the Federal Register for government subscribers, would save about $4 million annually, according to a May estimate by U.S. News & World Report. It would take about 20,000 similar projects to trim just half a percentage point off the annual budget deficit or, for that matter, off the $1.5 trillion in spending Republicans and Democrats agreed to slash by December as part of a deal to raise the federal debt limit.
The most far-reaching contribution the Obama administration has made to bureaucratic reform so far, Kettl says, is actually a collection of online transparency initiatives launched well before the Campaign to Cut Waste began. They include the creation of the government data set repository known as Data.gov, which backers say not only allows the public to keep an eye on government, but also serves as a platform for crowdsourcing new and innovative uses for federal data. The administration also recently launched Performance.gov, a not-yet-fully-enabled site to track federal agencies' progress toward meeting their goals.
Kettl warned, though, against mistaking merely collecting performance data for having a solid plan to improve performance.
"There's the perennial problem of connecting performance management systems to fundamental questions," he says. "The information is out there, but does anyone know what questions these are the answers to? That's not clear."
Attacks on federal bloat have become such an entrenched part of American political discourse that no presidential campaign can make it to Election Day any more without a plan to make Washington run more smoothly, Kettl says. That's to be expected, says Elaine Kamarck, who led the Clinton-era National Performance Review and is now a lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Governments change, just like industries and people, and approaches once viewed as state of the art are bound to become outdated over time.
"Twenty years is about a generation in terms of work life," she says. "Around that time, old habits come back; new problems emerge and there's new technology that needs to be integrated."
To take just one example, when Clinton and Gore launched the NPR in 1993, the Internet was in its infancy. Federal agencies were more concerned with building new websites than with shutting old ones down.
Kamarck has unreserved praise for a slate of information technology reform projects launched by Obama's former chief information officer, Vivek Kundra. Those reforms predate the administration's official waste cutting campaign by more than six months. Chief among them was a plan to save about $5 billion annually by shifting federal data storage to more nimble, Internet-based cloud computing-a technology that hardly existed until well into the Bush administration.
Kundra's plan also included a host of management reforms to respond to the increasingly rapid pace of IT development since the 1990s.
While she hopes Obama's other reform initiatives eventually will bear fruit, Kamarck says paradigm-shifting changes are unlikely. That's partially because the administration chose to run its initiative out of the vice president's office and the Office of Management and Budget rather than through an ad hoc organization like the NPR. That, she argues, will make it difficult to develop reforms that fit individual agencies and to combat inertia as new approaches are implemented.
At its height, the NPR had about 400 staffers borrowed from throughout the federal workforce, making it bigger than OMB. And unlike OMB, it had no day-to-day responsibilities other than implementing reform efforts.
In addition, Obama suffers from time and budget constraints that didn't exist during the Clinton administration. Not only is his attention being drawn away from government efficiency initiatives by two wars, numerous smaller conflicts, global debt crises and high unemployment rates, but he's also committed to much deeper spending cuts than management reforms ever could account for.
Nevertheless, one potential saving grace for the Campaign to Cut Waste is that efficiency initiatives often gain bipartisan support. Many of the NPR recommendations that weren't implemented by the end of the Clinton administration were quietly carried out under President Bush, Kamarck notes. Today, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif.-a potent critic of the Obama administration in most areas-is a strong supporter of the proposed Government Accountability and Transparency Board. He has sponsored a bipartisan bill that would give a similar board the force of legislation.
Ironically, it's precisely because savings from government waste and in- efficiency aren't big enough to plug the budget deficit that government performance questions are so important, Kettl says. For one thing, when useful programs are cut or scaled back, what remains must work as efficiently as possible to pick up the slack, he says. But performance questions also are intimately tied to larger questions about what is necessary in government and what isn't.
"We pretty much ran out of all the easy waste, fraud and abuse a long time ago," Kettl says. "Now we're getting to the stuff that involves fundamental political judgments like whether or not the [Environmental Protection Agency] is killing jobs and whether or not to slash disaster funds. I think performance is and has to be a broader conversation about what government is and how well it works and whether we want to pay for it."
Phoning It In
Sometimes, the slow progress in overhauling government operations is visible in the technology in use in the executive branch.
"I still remember staring at the telephone," Elaine Kamarck, director of the Clinton-era National Performance Review, writes in her book The End of Government . . . As We Know It (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2007). "It was one of those big cream-colored, boxy things with three plastic buttons, one for each line, and a big, red plastic 'hold' button. No voicemail, no speaker phone, no conference calling, no automatic redial. I had not seen a phone like that in years."
Sixteen years later, Obama's first chief information officer, Vivek Kundra, experienced a similar feeling. "If the Obama campaign represented a sleek iPhone, the White House was much more like the rotary phone," he said in a recent interview with Fortune magazine. "The president had to fight tooth and nail just to get a BlackBerry. For my staff, mobile devices were assigned based on the square footage of your office and how many years you were in government. I felt like I'd gone back decades."