Outlook: The Good New Days

Don't shed a tear for the time when reinventing government was all the rage.

A few weeks ago on NBC's "The West Wing," President Bartlet's staff felt the need to put the vice president in his place, so that his nascent presidential campaign wouldn't draw attention away from Bartlet's own agenda. So the staffers maneuvered to saddle the veep with the most thankless, insignificant project they could find: the government reform agenda.


This is what the movement to overhaul and improve the management of federal agencies has come to-or, rather, returned to. The brief period when everybody wanted to "reinvent government" or push a "new para-digm" has ended, and management has returned to its status as the real third rail of American politics: Touch it and zap! Your career disappears into a twilight zone of jargon-laden seminars, geeky task forces and obscure legislation. What a sad state of affairs, huh?

Not really.

It would be very easy to lament the gradual return of federal management issues to the obscurity they have enjoyed throughout most of the nation's history. And it's certainly clear that the wonderful, odd moment in the 1990s when President Clinton made management reform a centerpiece of his first term is fading into distant memory. (Can you still picture Al Gore on "Late Night with David Letterman," goggles on, smashing an ashtray to mock federal regulations?)

In his new book, The Price of Government (Basic Books, 2004), David Osborne, whose 1992 book Reinventing Government (Perseus Publishing), co-authored with Ted Gaebler, served as Clinton and Gore's manual, explains why times have changed for the better in the past 12 years. "Ideas that were then considered controversial or impractical-empowering customers, measuring results and using competition, to name three-are now in the mainstream," writes Osborne and his co-author, Peter Hutchinson.

The very notion that innovative management is important is almost a given, which was hard to imagine a little more than a decade ago. Remember when everybody used to talk about "putting the M back" into the Office of Management and Budget, or setting up a separate Office of Management? You never hear that kind of talk anymore, because there's no need for it. OMB's deputy director for management actually has some clout.

And it's the right kind of clout: Not the kind that results in White House dog-and-pony shows, but the kind that slowly grinds out efforts to make programs and agencies work better. And, as Osborne and Hutchinson note, those kinds of efforts are more important than ever, because governments at all levels are operating in a climate of permanent fiscal crisis.

Last fall, when the current OMB management director, Clay Johnson, declared that the Bush administration would not seek to politicize its efforts under the President's Management Agenda in the presidential campaign, it was hard to take him seriously. How could they resist taking potshots at bureaucrats and trumpeting efforts to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse? But so far, at least, they have.

This is not to suggest that there's not plenty of room for disagreement about the Bush administration's specific management initiatives, or that politics is out of the equation entirely. The administration's obsession with forcing agencies to run expensive job competitions against contractors, for example, seems excessive and politically driven.

But on the whole, the Bush team has left management where it belongs: out of the limelight and back in the shadows, where administration officials, career civil servants and members of Congress can make decisions about human resources, technology, performance measurement and other key issues without the pressures of politics excessively distorting the process. After all, Clinton and Gore's relentless hyping of their reinvention effort nearly caused it to collapse under its own weight. In the end, their most notable accomplishment was a deep and haphazard cut in the federal workforce from which agencies are still trying to recover.

So don't shed a tear for the demise of the management reform craze. Because it only means that the people who really do care about making the government work have a fighting chance.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.