To Boldly Go . . .

The "domino theory" of government transformation


hey are known as the Blair House Papers, after their place of origin-a historic red-brick building just across the street from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue-and they purport to offer nothing less than the road map (dare we say a bridge?) to a post-reinvented 21st century federal government. Indeed, prepared in early January by the Vice President and his National Performance Review staff, they emerged as a centerpiece of the new Clinton administration's very first Cabinet retreat, held at Blair House just days before the President's second inauguration.

According to Gore, the Papers are intended as the Cabinet's "reinvention marching orders"-a somewhat ironic label for an enterprise that abhors top-down rules-and they may just contain the coordinates of a new paradigm for public management.

However, the Blair House Papers spend little time on such philosophical matters. Theirs is a more practical blueprint (indeed, the Vice President proudly disdains "paradigms" and other such staples of public administration), and we predict here that the Clinton administration will be criticized by theorists and traditionalists alike for it. The Papers may also be criticized-or worse, ignored-for the simplicity of their 15 principles: They include such nostrums as "Identify your customers" and "Expand competition," each supported by examples that many may find familiar. However, a careful reading reveals a more subtle-and as a consequence, potentially more powerful-model for reform, one that proposes a new, performance-based administrative architecture for the federal government. Thus, the Blair House Papers may represent a radically different public management model (you could even call it a new paradigm, but in deference to the Vice President, we won't).

That model is embedded in the very last (and least captivating) of the Vice President's prime directives: "Create Performance-Based Organizations." One should not be fooled by this seemingly bland and bureaucratic declaration. According to the Clinton administration, performance-based organizations (PBOs) and their kin may be the only way the federal government can effectively operate in a balanced budget world. Others suggest that they may violate the very canons of the Constitution, improperly elevating the power of bureaucrats at the expense of the elected. In either case, the model described oh-so-briefly in the Papers deliberately seeks to blast free an agency's program operations from the administrative orbit of its "policy-making and regulatory functions"-holding those who run those operations contractually accountable for bottom-line objectives and outcomes. And in exchange, it promises them relief from the myriad administrative laws and rules that can make their lives so miserable.

John Koskinen, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, says PBOs would be the government's "factories," licensed to perform their functions without any administrative ties to the executive branch-except a performance contract between their chief executive officers and their appointed policy masters in the Cabinet.

By accident or design, the Blair House Papers also suggest a revolutionary implementation strategy, one that is incremental in scope yet potentially far-reaching in substance, characterized by grand principles reached in small steps. In other words, a "domino theory" of institutional transformation. We all remember the domino theory. A relic of the Cold War and the allegedly inexorable spread of the Red Menace, the domino theory has been made respectable by the Vice President and his notion of a government that is transformed piece by piece, until the entire administrative edifice has been remodeled.

But what will government look like when the dust settles? We need not search too far to get a glimpse of a post-reinvention future, for the first dominoes have already fallen, sometimes with a Big Bang but more often with barely a whisper. For example, many people know about the Federal Aviation Administration, emancipated just over a year ago from the government's supposedly monolithic management scheme. (See "Up in the Air," June 1996) But there are others, less well known, who are trying to follow its path beyond reinvention.

NEXT STORY: NASA's Strategic Plan