Apostles of Reform

Two early champions for better government, once more into the fray.

Two early champions for better government, once more into the fray.

Paul C. Light, the longtime crusader for government reform, likes to joke that his writings on the topic end up as "buck-a-book" remainders just weeks after they are published. Perhaps so, but there's little question that Light, now Paulette Goddard Professor of Public Service at New York University's Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service, has been very influential in defining problems and offering solutions.

In Congress' new visitor center on June 21, Light unveiled his latest report, boldly titled "Creating High-Performance Government: A Once-in-a-Generation Opportunity." Of course, this year has offered a once-in-a-generation opportunity to set government's fiscal house in order. But one might guess Congress has little appetite for another ambitious effort on a topic-bureaucratic reform-that makes most people's "eyes glaze over," as former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul A. Volcker and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said at the new report's unveiling.

Even so, the report's long list of problems serves as a reminder that even if Light's plea to "stop tinkering and enact a comprehensive package" is not heeded, incremental progress still is possible.

Delayering in federal hierarchies remains desirable; the number of political appointees should be radically reduced; public sector productivity needs to be measured and increased; agencies should eliminate improper payments and increase delinquent tax collections; and reorganization is absolutely a worthy goal.

In the pantheon of persistent reformers, few rank as high as Light and Volcker-both of whom I count as friends. As a grant-maker at the Pew Charitable Trusts and researcher at the Brookings Institution and elsewhere, Light has done more to document the need for reform than anyone I know. In his 1995 book, Thickening Government (Brookings Institution Press), he quantified the constant tendency of Congress and the bureaucracy to create new positions, new titles and, consequently, new layers-counting three dozen layers between the bottom and the top, and raising important questions about span of control and other management issues. In The True Size of Government (Brookings, 1999), he made the first serious effort to count government's huge corps of contractors, finding that they outnumbered federal employees by at least 3 million. The same year, in another book, The New Public Service (Brookings), he brought the rigor of academic analysis to a trend then emerging that finds bright young people defining public service as working for nonprofit groups as often as for government agencies.

The other Paul also has been a long-haul reformer. He chaired the first National Commission on the Public Service in 1989 and the second in 2003. The latter, to the surprise of many, emphasized the need to reorganize the federal bureaucracy. Volcker has many other avocations-reforming the financial system and international accounting standards, for example-but he has never taken his eye off the federal government, where he worked for 30 years. Volcker raised and gave the funds that financed the Wagner School research, in the hope that his long-held ambition to improve the functioning of government will advance another step.

The June 21 press event had a valedictory ambiance, as if these two éminences grises of government reform knew they were passing the torch to an energetic newcomer to the fray. Indeed, Warner already has steered one significant reform measure to enactment-the 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act-and is actively working on more. He's been in the thick of the deficit debates, as a member of the Senate Gang of Six, and so is perfectly positioned to marry the need to shrink spending with the imperative of improving government performance.

As for Light, he can be comforted that his buck-a-book pile will not grow, as the high-performance government report was not published in printed form but rather uploaded to http://wagner.nyu.edu/ governmentreform/index.pdf.

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