Reinvention: Back to the Future

Reinvention: Back to the Future


hen it comes to reinventing itself, the federal government has long suffered from an organizational strain of attention deficit disorder, an affliction that has led to an almost endless series of reform efforts-blue ribbon commissions, special studies and reports. Each one begins with great fanfare only to atrophy out of frustration, neglect, even boredom-or as a result of politics.

Despite the best intentions, there is every likelihood that reinvention will suffer the same fate. Many great issues of public policy compete for the President's finite focus. While the Clinton Administration took the extraordinary step of actually mentioning reinvention in its reelection campaign, it is just not the most compelling matter of "public" public policy.

However, reinvention is no less important because of its subtlety. And unless it gets some special treatment, it will not avoid the bureaucratic entropy that has befallen its progenitors-especially as it matures from darling, precocious child to awkward, sometimes difficult adolescent. Sustained reinvention requires more than just moral support for those who are waging the revolution. Reinvention also requires a bureaucratic blitzkrieg.

Here is a plan for that blitz, a strategy for fostering sweeping change, especially down in the muddy trenches of government. It is drawn from countless interviews and discussions with front-line federal reinventers for Government Executive articles and academic research, and from reinvention conferences sponsored by Government Executive, Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, the Council for Excellence in Government, and the Vice President's National Performance Review. These are voices of the people who are changing the shape of government from the bottom up.

Stay the Course

Reinvention is worth it, and the new Administration should build on its successes.

Those successes have been helped immeasurably by Vice President Gore's involvement, but that involvement adds a second sharp edge to the reinvention sword. Some will see reinvention as a political initiative and will attack or defend it for the wrong reasons, making reforms especially vulnerable during transition in the White House and on Capitol Hill.

Both branches must resist the temptation to cast reinvention in a partisan light. Reinvention is just a label. What is important are the underlying goals and principles, and the Administration should take care to "stay on message."

Two-Tiered Strategy

Like many government reform efforts that have preceded it, the NPR has involved a series of top-down initiatives, including major pieces of legislation that propose large-scale systemic changes such as civil service reform. Like those previous efforts, reinvention has met with mixed results. The new President should not give up, even though progress has been frustrated by Congress. The Administration ought to think about reinventing its relationship with the Hill. Congress Members-Republican and Democrat-are much more likely to contribute if they are included in the reinvention revolution.

At the same time, a new Administration cannot lose sight of the bottom-up part of government's transformation in more than 200 reinvention laboratories at front-line agencies. Though some labs have struggled with resistant employees, recalcitrant managers and intransigent headquarters, most have made great strides in changing the government's street-level culture, where it is most visible to citizens. The labs are unique to the NPR-perhaps its most lasting contribution to the long and often frustrating history of administrative reform-and should continue at all costs.

However, there needs to be an easier way to become a reinvention lab. Each agency has its own approach to designating reinvention labs, and while there is nothing wrong with variety, this is the plain, bureaucratic sort. There are lots of reinvention lab wannabes out there, and they shouldn't be kept bottled up. Given the enormity of transforming the federal government, there can never be too many bureaucracy breakers, and the executive branch needs a nice, simple, fast way of giving them reinvention licenses.

Commitment From Leaders

If reinvention is to be successful over the long term, at least through the turn of the century, the new Administration needs to ensure that its leaders are committed.

Most administrations worry about resistance from the career civil service, a legitimate concern, but one that can be vitiated with some attention. You wouldn't believe the good will President Bush banked when he met with senior career executives early in his term, just as President Clinton did with employee unions. However, no set of stakeholders should be courted at the expense of others.

And the new Administration cannot take appointees for granted, just because they're part of the team. Reinventers often complain about the lack of support from the middle and lower political ranks, and few things are more discouraging to those on the front lines of change. This too can be dealt with and ought to be an appointee's litmus test in an Administration that is committed to reinvention.

Protect and Promote Pathfinders

The commitment of senior leaders alone is insufficient. If reinvention labs have taught us anything about change, it is that to succeed it takes street-level leadership-sometimes from those in formal leadership positions, but just as often not.

These leaders are a precious commodity, a resource that must be preserved, protected and promoted. Unfortunately, reinvention leaders are often an endangered species. Bureaucracies have too many ways of exacting revenge on those who challenge the status quo. Reinventers have suffered bureaucratic harassment such as audits, inspections, constant reports, even time served in the dreaded "turkey farm," which deters others from stepping up to the plate.

The new Administration needs to give these change agents a reinvention insurance policy. They need to know that when they take a risk, the Administration will provide them air cover. Think of these reinvention leaders as a virus, a way of infecting government with common sense bit by bit, and deploy them accordingly. Once they've infected one bureaucracy, expose them to another one, and another, until common sense finally takes over.

Take Fear Out of Reinvention

Reinvention often provokes a schizophrenic reaction among employees. Most are genuinely excited about the chance to do a better job, but at the same time, apprehensive about how they might be affected by change. The perennial "What happens to me?" question often has a chilling effect on innovation.

The new Administration can help by improving the safety net available to workers who may be displaced by reinvention. The Office of Personnel Management's placement program and buyouts help, but additional efforts, such as more aggressive transition and outplacement assistance, more portable benefits, even "survival training" for those who remain part of a reinvented government, would tighten the net. Agencies who do a good job should be recognized and rewarded, just as President Clinton has done with private companies who have demonstrated exemplary "corporate responsibility" in taking care of their workers. There is no better way to spur creativity than by paying attention to those who do well by their employees.

Mixed Signals

Too many reinventers get mixed, even contradictory signals from all the various and sundry performance management and measurement systems. This is cause for gridlock in a government where "what gets measured gets done."

These management systems are not integrated. Behaviors and results that are rewarded by one are penalized in another, forcing reinventers to confront Hobson's choices. For example, the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act says to focus on outcomes, but budget examiners pay attention to spending, the ultimate input measure. And when agencies are efficient, they are rewarded by more budget cuts-the "use it or lose it" syndrome.

With signals like these, inaction is often the most attractive course. The government's central management agencies-the Office of Management and Budget and OPM, in particular-must send the same message about performance. GPRA provides them with the perfect vehicle.

Regulatory Relief

The value of reinvention labs is considerably diminished if they are unable to get temporary relief from the headache of too much government regulation.

Regulatory waivers are the lifeblood of reinvention labs, and right now, headquarters staffs are clogging their arteries. Many labs must fight through layers of bureaucracy to get waivers from even the most innocuous administrative rules within their own organizations, as well as those spawned by central agencies like OPM and the General Services Administration. The "one size fits all" mentality still clings to government like a cheap suit. Paradoxically, most agencies have bureaucratized the waiver process, requiring complicated applications and multiple levels of review and approval, all to protect jurisdictional turf.

Some benchmarking and reengineering is in order here. The NPR or the President's Management Council should look at how agencies are performing in the regulatory waiver department-their cycle times, approval rates, measures of customer satisfaction, etc.-as a way of exposing best and worst practices. Another approach would be automatic, no-fault waiver approval, which lets a reinvention lab give just 10 days' notice before it waives an agency regulation. Then the responsible staff office would have to convince the agency head to stop it. As one reinventer put it, "Sometimes you have to fight fire with fire."

Advocates for Change Agents Reinventers need their very own "public defenders" to help them make the case for change. Time and again, promising innovations have been thwarted by some green eye-shaded technocrat citing an obscure administrative law or regulation.

Most agency reinvention offices don't have the clout to overcome bureaucratic resistance when it is cloaked in such technical garb. As one reinventer says, "What do you expect when the person you're asking to change a regulation is usually the one who wrote it in the first place?"

Reinvention labs need someone on their side who can do battle with the best of their bureaucratic brethren. The new Administration should appoint independent agency reinvention advocates-strategically placed right outside the secretary's door or perhaps right in the general counsel's office, since that is "ground zero" for many innovations. The advocates should have the savvy, expertise and authority to deal decisively with the typical "just say no" staff office.

"What's Next?"

In a presidential election year, relatively mundane issues like reinvention may get caught up or lost altogether in partisan politics. Thus, reinvention is at a crossroads.

In the short term, reinvention faces presidential transition, "friendly" or otherwise, and the potential loss of momentum. Even now, NPR seems lethargic, and the Vice President's attentions understandably are elsewhere. The inevitable confusion of transition may set the movement back a year or more. Reinvention continuity needs to be a top priority.

Then there is the long term. The next Administration should continue governmentwide reforms, but reinvention labs are more problematic. How can the federal government learn from their experiences? How can it harvest the results of their efforts and transplant them to other, less innovative parts of government? How can reinvention-and its labs-be transformed from "flavor of the month" to a permanent fixture?

Institutionalize Change

It is time to institutionalize the NPR-or better yet, institutionalize what it stands for. Institutionalizing change may sound like an oxymoron, but just as our government continues to function smoothly during the turmoil and uncertainty of election and transition, so too must its transformation continue unabated.

The new Administration must make sure its transition staff sends an early signal that change will continue, and that although the blueprint may be different, reinventers are still the most valuable resources in government.