Obama calls for end of '20th century bureaucracy'

AP Photo/Ron Edmonds
In his speech on Thursday accepting the Democratic nomination for president, Barack Obama issued a call for government reform that echoed a wide-ranging effort launched by the last Democratic president.

Obama pledged to "go through the federal budget, line by line, eliminating programs that no longer work and making the ones we do need work better and cost less -- because we cannot meet 21st century challenges with a 20th century bureaucracy."

"A government that works better and costs less" was the slogan of the Clinton administration's National Performance Review, which sought to overhaul management of the federal bureaucracy. Clinton's effort involved a months-long audit of agency operations and programs, resulting in hundreds of reform proposals in areas ranging from personnel management to procurement.

"Our government should work for us, not against us," Obama said in his speech. "It should help us, not hurt us. It should ensure opportunity not just for those with the most money and influence, but for every American who's willing to work."

Obama's nod to management improvement -- in arguably his most important address as a presidential candidate -- came as a welcome surprise to some government reform experts.

David Osborne, one of the architects of the National Performance Review, interpreted Obama's words as an acknowledgement that it was time to return to the "reinventing government" paradigm of the Clinton years.

"I think it's a clear signal that he recognizes that given the fiscal realities, he's going to need to do Reinventing Government 2.0," said Osborne, who now serves as a senior partner for the Public Strategies Group consulting firm. "It's just one thing added to his agenda. And it's been conspicuous by its absence in the past."

Obama was unusually specific in his policy proposals Thursday night, which included initiatives for creating new jobs, tax breaks for the middle class and funding alternative sources of energy.

"People have been criticizing him for not getting specific," Osborne said. "What he said is, 'I am going to tell you specifically what I am going to do,' and he went through about 20 things. And he put reinventing government on that list."

John Kamensky, a senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government, said Obama's mention of government reform shows the candidate is taking the issue seriously.

"For him to announce this in his acceptance speech puts down an important marker," Kamensky said. "This was not done by Clinton or Gore or in Bush's acceptance speech. So, symbolically, for him to put it in his acceptance speech puts it at a much higher level than I've seen in the past 15 to 20 years."

Kamensky notes, however, that the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has talked in similar ways about improving government efficiency and conducting "top to bottom reviews of all federal programs to weed out failing ones."

"The question is, 'Does either of them have anything behind that?' " Kamensky said. "There is a feeling among both candidates that there are opportunities to find ways of delivering services at less cost and both of them have expressed interest in doing that."

Osborne and Kamensky both serve as members of Obama's government reform advisory committee. The panel is working on a range of issues, including campaign finance reform, ethics and transparency.

Roughly 10 days ago, Osborne, Kamensky, and two other committee members -- Russ Linden, a consultant in Virginia close to Gov. Tim Kaine; and Cynthia Eisenhower, who previously served as chief of staff to Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack -- drafted a one-page memo urging Obama to start talking about the theme of producing results.

A senior campaign official, speaking on background, said the memo did not play a role in the speech and that the reform proposals came from Obama himself.

Those proposals, taken together, would substantially expand the reach of government. "America, now is not the time for small plans," Obama said.

But Obama also expressed skepticism about government's capacity to deliver on its promises.

"Yes, government must lead on energy independence, but each of us must do our part to make our homes and businesses more efficient," he said. "Yes, we must provide more ladders to success for young men who fall into lives of crime and despair. But we must also admit that programs alone can't replace parents; that government can't turn off the television and make a child do her homework; that fathers must take more responsibility for providing the love and guidance their children need."

At one point, Obama referred to "the cynicism we all have about government," and positioned himself as an outsider prepared to reform the federal establishment. "I haven't spent my career in the halls of Washington," he said.

Despite Obama's call for reforms to government, neither he nor any of the major speakers at the convention talked specifically about the role of federal employees. They defined public service in broad terms.

Michelle Obama spoke briefly about her own path, saying, "I left a job at a law firm for a career in public service, working to empower young people to volunteer in their communities." That summary skipped from her private sector career to her executive directorship of the Chicago office of Public Allies, forgoing mention of her tenure in the Chicago Mayor's office as assistant to the mayor and assistant commissioner of planning and development.

Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., limited their references to public service to Obama's career and their own Senate tenures.

American Federation of Government Employees President John Gage, who attended the Democratic convention as an Obama delegate, said he would ask the nominee to talk more about government workers and the services they deliver.

"He really talks eloquently when he talks about good government, and hopefully he'll pick that up a little more," Gage said.

But Gage also said he thought federal employee unions would kick up their own rhetoric if Republicans began to speak negatively about government.

"We're kind of having our ammunition locked and loaded, really looking and waiting to see when the attack on federal employees or some of our great agencies [comes]," Gage said. "I haven't yet heard McCain hit the typical Republican mantra of less government, let's get rid of this, but we're going to stand up and defend these agencies."

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