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.

Ouch.

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.

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