Reinventing Government -- Two Decades Later

Joe Marquette/AP file photo

The team has long since disbanded, its Washington office on 17th Street Northwest now housing the Combined Federal Campaign, and its papers relegated to a website at North Texas University—complete with an alumni directory. That bygone entity?  The Clinton administration’s National Performance Review, which was re-christened during President Clinton’s second term as the National Partnership for Reinventing Government.

What many recall as the 20th century’s most visible effort to remake the federal government endures in the 21st in bits and pieces. That’s because two succeeding administrations picked up only the components that fit their style, the march of technology rendered some revolutionary ideas quaint, and the public’s respect for government, polls show, has trended nowhere but down.

The team of crusaders for smarter government was led by Vice President Al Gore. Their model came from a book by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler, Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is Transforming the Public Sector, published in time for the 1992 presidential campaign.

The reinvention gospel called for importing private sector efficiency techniques to make government more results-oriented and less costly. After an initial six-month canvass of agencies, the National Performance Review proposed 1,200 changes to “serve customers better,” relieve businesses of unneeded regulations, exploit technology to widen access to federal services and information, encourage plain English documents, improve coordination with state and local governments, cement community relationships, build new labor-management partnerships and empower front-line workers. The last included eliminating such “silly” things as employee time sheets.

In short, the NPR tried to make government cool again.

It was led by a rotating staff, some 250 federal employees still on home agency payrolls, which dwindled to about 35 to 45 after the initial effort was completed. They set out to identify government’s high-impact agencies and set goals for each—targets that were adjusted after the Republican takeover of the House in the 1994 elections. And they circulated laminated cards spelling out the four principles of reinventing government: 

-  Putting customers (the American taxpayers) first

-  Cutting red tape

-  Empowering employees to get results

- Cutting government back to basics 

 “We focused on how the government works, not on what it should be doing,” wrote NPR deputy John Kamensky in an official history. “We chose to target the overhead costs, not the organizational structure, of agencies.” For the initial six-month push, Gore asked for recommendations that were “administrative changes, not proposals requiring statutory changes.” He warned that recommendations for further studies were not acceptable. 

After two-thirds of the recommendations were adopted in the first Clinton term, the history says, the staff  “assigned a ‘champion’ in the agencies to follow through on the implementation of each recommendation.”

What also unfolded during that seven-year period of deficit reduction and a post-Cold War defense drawdown was the elimination of 426,200 federal positions, according to a summary on the NPR’s archival website. 

The phrase “reinventing government” entered the wonk’s lexicon, though some note that lately it’s been in need of an update. “Clinton popularized the term during the ’92 campaign, and it seemed newer and sexier than ‘public administration reform,’ ” recalls Elaine Kamarck, the top policy aide to Gore and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. 

The phrase was “so branded with the Clinton effort, there was a search for another way to describe what it achieved,” says Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. “It’s not a term I hear used in aspirational language bandied about today.” 

Successors to Clinton’s reinvention “did their own thing to differentiate it from what happened before,” says Donald Kettl, dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. “Unquestionably there has been a large amount of reform fatigue—‘so this is what they’re calling it now, who knows what they’ll call it next?’ ” he says. “That bit of cynicism is worsened by budget battles and shutdowns, so it’s one more piece that makes federal managers weary.”

THE LEGACY

Perhaps the NPR’s most concrete accomplishment was reforming the Internal Revenue Service, according to Bob Stone, the project’s director and “energizer in chief” and now an adjunct professor at the University of Redlands in California. The government’s evolution toward electronic tax filing was spearheaded by Bob Wenzel, then head of the IRS office in Fresno, Calif. Wenzel, Stone says, “was into reinventing government before it was cool.”

In 1994, electronic filing was “just a gleam in the eye,” Kamarck says, adding that now more than 70 percent of filers are doing it, and all developed countries execute a substantial portion of their tax collection online. “Of course, it would have happened anyway, but Gore’s passion and tendency to be a futurist allowed the government—usually a decade behind the private sector—to be more in sync.”

Add to that feat improved treatment at hospitals run by the Veterans Affairs Department, says Paul C. Light, a professor of public service at New York University. “If you can get IRS and VA to get better, you’ve done something. The enduring legacy is that government can get better, though I’m not saying it always did get better. Gore was a powerful source of honest assessment of what’s wrong and what could be right. You’ve got to admire the notion of getting the vice president to take a real interest for eight years. There was a sense of purpose and support that federal employees received.”

Another durable achievement, says Stone, is a changed attitude toward business among government regulators and enforcers. For decades previous, the mind-set at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission was “them against the world,” he says. “At the NPR, we were crazy fanatics about the concept of customers. But people at those agencies said, ‘We never refer to customers, everyone is a suspect.’ ” Still, Stone adds, there were some “subversives who understood that if you treat everyone as an enemy, you won’t be very effective.”

Stone recalls being surprised that the NPR’s meetings with chief executives at major corporations such as Dupont, Alcoa, General Electric and Disney showed that business people were put off by the regulators more than the regulations themselves. “They didn’t like being treated like crooks. Many in industry actually want to do good,” he says, but some don’t have sufficient engineering or legal staff to comply with regulations. “Agencies then took it upon themselves to educate” companies while reforming compliance processes.

Passage of the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act, notes Kamarck, is an example of the reinventing government initiative’s influence on standard operating procedure. The NPR accelerated implementation of performance metrics under the law, so agencies could be evaluated and held accountable, she says. 

“Most agencies set targets for performance for first time, which has created a long legacy,” Kettl says. “Some real things happened in improving the function of the workforce. The Social Security Administration was tremendously successful at changing the way they interact with citizens.”

In 1997, Gore published Access America: Reengineering Through Information Technology, which “laid out a vision of how the Internet would transform government and services,” Kamarck says. The strategy built on the tenets of the Government Information Technology Services Board and the Chief Information Officers Council, which had just been created.

The Reinventing Government Partnership also co-sponsored the creation of the FirstGov.gov website, a compendium of links to federal information that evolved into what is now USA.gov. The Harvard University Innovations in American Government Awards program honored the site in 2003, and in 2007 Time magazine named it one of the “25 Sites We Can’t Live Without.” Along with online documents came the effort to rid federal communication of “gobbledygook,” Kamensky adds, which paved the way for the 2010 Plain Writing Act. 

The effort also institutionalized organizational changes later enshrined in executive orders and statutes: the creation of the President’s Management Council; performance-based pay for the Senior Executive Service; the anointment of deputy secretaries as chief operating officers; and the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, spearheaded by the Office of Personnel Management.

SHRINKING THE WORKFORCE

Another Clinton-Gore team goal—shrinking government—turned out to create problems, Kettl recalls. “The reduction didn’t happen in a way that matched workforce needs because they used a strategy for downsizing to hit a target,” he says. “The effort got in the way of the ‘making government work better’ piece. Many with special skills left, and people who stayed might have been those we’d have wanted to leave.” 

An unintended consequence was that “bench strength was lost, particularly in Pentagon acquisition,” says Stier, who contends the damage remains visible today.

The NPR’s view, Stone says, was that “roughly one of three federal employees had the job of interfering with work of another two. We called them the forces of micromanagement and distrust, and we wanted to reduce the number of inspectors general, controllers, procurement officers and personnel specialists.” 

Stone wanted a no-layoff policy, but did not succeed. He says he was able to get the Office of Management and Budget and OPM to support a large-scale buyout program that offered employees incentives of up to $50,000 to leave. Only about 25,000 of the more than 420,000 jobs cut came as a result of layoffs, while many offices in “the hinterlands” were closed, Stone adds.

THE BUSH UNDOING

When George W. Bush entered the Oval Office in 2001, there was a “noticeable chilling” toward reinventing government, Light recalls, citing a return to the Reagan-era notion that “the problem with government is government.” The Bush team didn’t like bureaucracy and favored outsourcing, he says. Many reinvention efforts were undone, such as the overhaul of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That led to the widely criticized federal response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, according to Light.

But Robert Shea, a top OMB official under President Bush and now a principal with Grant Thornton LLP, says the Bush team was careful “not to throw out the baby with the bath water.” Criticism of the reinventing government formula was threefold, he says. “It was not aligned with the major challenges, it didn’t tie budgets to each agency’s commitment to improving management, and there wasn’t a lot of rigor behind the progress reported and savings achieved,” he says. 

Much of this was borne out by reports from the Government Accountability Office and Congress, says Shea, who was a Senate Governmental Affairs Committee staffer during the NPR movement. According to Shea, many Clinton management reforms were viewed as not yet refined, and Bush opted to centralize their coordination and narrow the focus to five buckets: human capital, competitive sourcing, financial performance, electronic government, and budget and performance integration.

“Everything [Bush’s team] did was based in some way on work being done by Reinventing Government,” he says, citing the 2002 E-Government Act as an example. But during the transition from Clinton to Bush as well the one from Bush to Obama, Shea says, “we lost a lot of progress that had been made by wanting to put a new cover on the agenda.”

In many ways, “Bush started out in a very positive direction,” Kamarck says, noting he retained the President’s Management Council. But then he “went backwards in dismantling the labor-management partnerships,” she argues. The Gore team “was proud of our relationship with unions,” Kamarck adds.

Stone recalls urging contacts in the new Bush White House to “find out what we’re doing, so you will know what priceless assets you have to nourish and what subversives you have to discourage.” The response was that Bush believed in an “old-fashioned business model in which you give someone a job to do and leave them alone—that Bush believed in delegation and was not interested in the NPR,” Stone says. But, he adds, “just saying what the policy is doesn’t mean much if you’re disconnected from what federal employees are actually doing.”

Bush did a better job of engaging political appointees, says Kamensky. “He had all these people’s hearts and souls, and they signed off on [Bush’s] Presidential Management Agenda items and were committed in ways you never saw under Clinton,” Kamensky says. He agrees, however, with the view that Bush did not pick up on Clinton and Gore’s recognition of front-line innovation.

MAKING GOVERNMENT COOL

In the 21st century world of social media and online customer reviews, “any organization, private or public, that is riding off an approach from 20 years ago would be stale and unresponsive,” says Stier. Today the issue is “how to create a nimble government able to keep up and lead in a changing world,” he says. But Stier remains impressed with the visibility Clinton and Gore gave reinvention. “If you want to drive change in government, it has to be top leadership’s priority,” he says. 

Light regrets the reinventors “could not bring themselves to take on civil service reform,” which Washington is still dealing with, he says. But knowing now what came afterward, he looks back with admiration for the Clinton-Gore tenacity. “Gore didn’t make government cool again,” Light says, “but he made good management important for a while.”

Kamarck says much of President Obama’s management reform effort is “in the same mode.” She envies the way advances in IT, such as releasing government databases so the public can innovate on its own, have allowed Obama to move in new directions. Any major reform also “requires taking the time to get to know the federal workforce,” she adds. “If you’re hostile to the workforce, you won’t learn anything useful.”

At the working level, the reinvention of government has continued regardless of the administration, Stone says. “It’s like getting hospital workers to wash their hands. People haven’t gone back to not washing their hands. There’s been a change in the fundamental understanding of governing.”

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