ive years after his National Performance Review began tackling the troubles of the U.S. government, Vice President Al Gore is broadening his aim. On Jan. 14 and 15, Gore will host his first international conference on public service reform.
The meeting on "Strategies for 21st Century Government: A Global Forum on Reinventing Government" will bring together 150 politicians, senior bureaucrats and academics from 45 countries. They'll convene for two days at the State Department to compare their experiences in making government work better and cost less.
The conference will be chaired by Gore but is sponsored by eight government and non-government organizations. The goal, says Elaine Kamarck of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, who is chairing the committee organizing the conference, is to "create a dialogue where people engaged in government reform can share their best practices and learn from each other." The event also will give Gore a chance to profile one of his key initiatives and claim a spot as a leader of the emerging international reinventing government ("REGO") movement.
The conference could also pose difficult challenges. It may be tough to find common ground between developing and developed countries, and old and new democracies. And comparisons are bound to be made. After five years, how does Gore's reinvention effort stack up to those overseas?
New Global Paradigm
Gore's conference will be the latest in a series of international meetings that have examined the global convergence of thinking about how to reform the public sector. A 1993 conference of 65 Commonwealth countries found a strong "common pattern" in management reforms. Many observers also saw evidence of convergence during a recent special session on public-sector reform held by the United Nations General Assembly, and in a meeting of member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 1996. Former Office of Management and Budget Director Alice Rivlin, chair of the OECD meeting, says it revealed a "startling" similarity in international reform efforts.
A theme emphasized in these meetings--and likely to be noted during the January conference--is the common bundle of problems afflicting different governments. The outlook at the 1996 OECD meeting was bleak. Government's ability to maintain programs, participants said, is being squeezed by the cost of servicing public debt. Taxing and regulatory powers are being undermined by the ability of businesses and workers to jump borders. Meanwhile, special interest groups are ratcheting up their demands on government, and because of government's inability to provide high-quality services, citizen disenchantment is growing.
Outside the United States, the ideas touted as remedies for the current crisis are known as the "New Public Management," or NPM. British academic Christopher Hood coined the phrase in 1991. But there's a close resemblance between NPM and REGO. Both emphasize the need to prune non-essential programs, give managers more freedom to use resources wisely, focus on results rather than inputs, and rely more on the private sector for service delivery. Hood argues that NPM has become the "new global paradigm" for organizing government.
Advocates argue that NPM can produce dramatic improvements in public-sector performance, and even overall economic performance. New Zealand is a widely cited model of what NPM can do. Stuck in the economic doldrums throughout the 1970s, New Zealand undertook a series of dramatic public-sector reforms in the 1980s. (See "The Wonder Down Under," March 1997) Many state-owned industries were privatized. Remaining government departments were given broad freedom over human and financial resources. And top civil servants, now hired on short-term contracts, negotiate annual performance agreements.
University of Maryland professor Allen Schick, one of a growing number of American scholars who have studied New Zealand's reforms, says they have made the country's public sector "more effective, productive and responsive. There has been significant improvement in the quality of service provided to New Zealanders."
Many other countries are following New Zealand's lead. "NPM-oriented reforms have swept the world," says Lawrence R. Jones, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. "While the pace of reform has varied widely, change is penetrating even to nations where little reform was anticipated."
Donald Kettl, director of the Brookings Institution's Center for Public Management, agrees. "This really is a truly global effort. There are enormous similarities in the questions that people are asking, and resonance in the strategies that people have tried."
More Than Just Talk?
Not everyone agrees that the world is converging on a new global paradigm. Skeptics say that advocates of reform overstate the consensus because it bolsters their case for reform at home. Furthermore, these critics say, there is a big gulf between what governments say and what they do.
Pakistan may illustrate the point. At the 1996 U.N. meeting, Pakistan was a booster of a new global paradigm, arguing that there was "a virtual consensus on guiding principles concerning public administration." But spokesman Khalid Aziz Babar added a healthy caveat: The consensus is mainly at the "conceptual level." Generic prescriptions, he warned, didn't always make sense given local conditions. In fact, Pakistan's own reform program includes new central controls to stamp out corruption and create a merit-based civil service. It may be exactly what's needed, but it's also at odds with the trend toward cutting central controls in the bureaucracies of many western democracies.
Other emerging democracies share Pakistan's problems. A recent report by the European Union criticizes Eastern European nations for slow progress in civil service reform. But the kind of reform that's said to be needed isn't a reduction in internal red tape. On the contrary, the EU's SIGMA project, which studies reform in Eastern Europe, is calling for stronger central coordination and control of personnel policies. It's considered essential to build professional, non-political workforces. Kamarck says the conference will take into account the "vast differences" in some aspects of national reform efforts. "Some countries are still dealing with setting up an honest civil service and a credible regulatory structure," she notes.
The case for a common paradigm may be strongest in the western democracies--but even here, there is significant variation. British academic Christopher Pollitt, a longtime observer of international reform trends, says much of continental Europe has been "distinctly lukewarm" about applying NPM-style reforms. Professor Frieder Naschold of Berlin's Social Science Research Center argues that the German public sector has "neglected the international trend toward reform." NPM, he says, is an "Anglo-Saxon" approach to reform, which has really taken hold in the English-speaking OECD countries--the United States, Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada.
For some observers, a key question may be: How does the United States' track record on reform compare to those of other national governments? It's a split decision. The Clinton administration has made slow progress in reforming basic government systems. On the other hand, it may be a model for innovations that don't depend on legislative changes.
Compare, for example, progress on reforming civil service laws and budgeting systems. Since 1988, New Zealand has implemented radical changes, giving department heads broad discretion over the use of human and financial resources. Britain has also given top managers more freedom on personnel and financial matters, although it hasn't gone as far as New Zealand. Many commentators suggest that this sort of internal deregulation has been the key to productivity improvements within these two governments.
The U.S. government, by contrast, hasn't made significant progress on reform of civil service laws. NPR's 1993 proposals for overhauling civil service rules got no further than draft legislation, which died after union leaders expressed their ardent opposition in June 1995. It's a similar story with budget reform. In 1993, NPR called for eliminating legislative restrictions on how agencies can spend appropriated money and on how many employees they may hire. Congress didn't adopt the suggestions.
Other countries have also gone further in reforming agencies that provide services to other parts of government. Ten years ago, Australia began breaking up the monopolies that its Department of Administrative Services once enjoyed over the supply of printing, accommodation and property management services. Canada and the United Kingdom went further, selling off their government printing offices. On the other hand, NPR's 1993 recommendations for similar changes to the U.S. Government Printing Office and General Services Administration haven't been fully adopted.
In fairness, it often is easier for other governments to make big changes in basic systems. All other English-speaking OECD countries have parliamentary systems of government, in which prime ministers and cabinets have more freedom to act decisively.
"The U.S. has adopted some of the most aggressive and ambitious and sweeping efforts compared to all the other nations," says Kettl. "It has launched more battles on more fronts than virtually any other country. On the other hand, our system of government makes it difficult to initiate and sustain that kind of change. By almost anybody's measure, we have a more complicated environment to work in."
Kamarck cites NPR's experiment with "performance-based organizations" to illustrate the challenges that confront U.S. reformers. The PBO initiative, unveiled by Vice President Gore in 1995, was based on a British experiment begun by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1988. The Thatcher government divided its big line departments into more than 100 smaller service delivery agencies. Each of these new "executive agencies" is focused on better-defined goals and has more freedom to experiment with new ways of doing work. David Osborne, co-author of Banishing Bureaucracy (Addison Wesley, 1997), calls the Thatcher experiment "a resounding success."
But the Gore initiative had less luck. By September 1998, only one PBO--the Education Department's Office of Student Financial As - sistance--had been established, and it wasn't even on Gore's list of PBO candidates. The critical difference between the two experiments is that the American plan required congressional approval, while the British plan required no legislative action at all.
Setting the Pace
Where legislative authorization isn't required, American reformers have made more progress. Kamarck says many foreign reformers have been impressed with NPR's success in promoting customer service within the federal bureaucracy. She points to an initiative begun in 1993 under which agencies were ordered to develop customer service standards and measure progress in achieving them. NPR reported in October 1997 that agencies had published 4,000 customer service standards.
The Social Security Administration is also becoming an internationally recognized benchmark for customer service, Kamarck says. An independent 1995 study rated SSA's 1-800 phone information service as one of the best in either the public or private sector. Since then, SSA has improved its response time on phone inquiries even further. In some cities, it has also begun taking applications for benefits on the 1-800 line, saving customers a time-consuming trip to an SSA field office.
Customer service will be one of the main themes at the January conference. "Serving citizens is something everyone has to cope with," say Kamarck. "It's a key to electoral stability." For example, South Africa's Department of Social Welfare recently overhauled its pension application process, replacing a centralized, paper-based system with one in which field workers take applications with laptop computers. The new system cuts processing time from months to weeks.
The Indian state of Madhya Pradesh responded to popular complaints about lack of access to education with a program that promised a teacher for any disadvantaged community that provided classroom space. In one year, 16,000 schools were established, enrolling 500,000 students. Both governments recently received awards in an innovations competition sponsored by the Commonwealth Association for Public Administration and Management.
The South African initiative also highlights the second major theme of the conference: the use of information technology to improve government performance. Again, it's an area where the U.S. government has achieved notable successes. One example that Kamarck says has attracted international attention is the Internal Revenue Service's Telefile program, a winner in the 1997 Innovations in American Government competition. Last year Telefile allowed more than 5 million Americans to file their 1040EZ forms by touch-tone phone. The National Park Service's new ParkNet Web site provides up-to-date information about campsite availability and allows customers to make reservations for some parks over the Internet.
The conference may also draw on the IT successes of other countries. One widely acclaimed example is the ServiceOntario project, a partnership between the Ontario government and IBM Canada that began in 1996. The project uses ATM-style kiosks located in malls to deliver a range of government services. IBM made the entire capital investment and recoups its costs through transaction charges. The project won an award for innovation from the Institute for Public Administration of Canada in 1997.
A project undertaken by the European Union gives an even more dramatic demonstration of the power of technology. The Infoville project will transform seven communities throughout Europe into electronic villages, whose residents can access government, educational and commercial services through fiber-optic intranets. Experiments in telemedicine are also planned. "This goes beyond improving service delivery to citizens," says Jack Pellicci, a vice president at Oracle Corp., which is providing software for the project. "This is about empowering citizens to do it themselves. It's service by the citizen."
Been There, Done That
Observers may see another potential roadblock at the conference: What seems like radical reform in other countries is already old news in the United States. Take, for example, the idea of contracting out work to the private sector. Since the early 1980s, the British government has adopted several programs that compel public agencies to outsource a fixed amount of their work every year. Other national governments have followed suit. In countries that have a tradition of strong, independent civil services, large-scale contracting-out is a radical change.
It's a different story in the United States, as Donald Kettl noted in his 1993 book, Sharing Power (Brookings Institution, 1993). Federal agencies have faced pressure to outsource commercial activities for decades. They've also grappled with the problem that follows the decision to contract out: how, in Kettl's words, to be "smart buyers" of services. The record of U.S. agencies is decidedly mixed, but other countries might be able to learn from their mistakes.
Another area in which the United States is a pioneer is results-oriented budgeting and management. Governments around the world have signed onto the idea that public agencies should be held accountable for outcomes, not inputs. But the United States is ahead of the pack, Kettl argues. "One of the things that distinguishes us is the really ambitious effort in the Government Performance and Results Act," he says. "No other government in the world has tried to go so far so fast." Or been at it for so long. American reformers have been working on the practical implications of a "results orientation" for 30 years. A lot has been learned about what can be measured, and what can't--and about whether good information about results actually changes budget decisions.
In some areas, however, other countries must follow their own paths. For example, consider the global phenomenon of privatizing government-owned industries. This movement has dramatically changed the shape of national governments and contributed to improved economic performance. Most of the 30 percent reduction in British public employment between 1979 and 1995 came from the disposal of government-owned industries. The current global sell-off of state-owned telecommunications operations--including the recent privatization of Spain's Telefonica and Brazil's Telebras--is radically transforming that industry.
There is one point on which conference participants are likely to agree. If public-sector reform isn't handled carefully, it can be politically costly. The Labor Party government that began New Zealand's reforms was tossed out by voters in 1990. Two years later, citizens endorsed changes to the country's electoral system that make it almost impossible for any future government to implement such sweeping reforms. In Britain, citizen dissatisfaction with the national government increased throughout the tenure of Thatcher and her successor, John Major, also fueling a movement for electoral reforms to limit the power of future governments. In Sweden, the center-right government that attempted reforms after 1991 was removed by voters in 1994.
Faced with political risks like these, it's understandable that many governments undertake reform only when absolutely necessary. As officials noted during the 1996 OECD meeting, it often takes a crisis--such as the looming inability to repay foreign lenders--to spur governments to action. It was fear of hitting "the debt wall" that drove the Canadian government to implement large-scale public service reforms in 1994.
Today, many governments have their books back in order. The United States and Canada have recorded their first budget surpluses in 30 years. There's evidence that the sense of crisis that gripped governments--and chastened voters--has evaporated. Last fall's fight over the U.S. budget seemed very much like business as usual. Is there a risk that support for serious public-sector reform might also slacken?
Kamarck doesn't think so. "What's going to drive reform in the long run is not deficits or surpluses," she says. "It's the need to maintain international competitiveness. Competition creates a situation where you want to keep your state spending down, so you can free up capital for private-sector investment."
Kettl agrees. "The urgency may decline, but management issues don't just go away," he says. "We've had problems with the IRS, and they're not going to disappear. Every nation has problems like that."
The U.S. experience may also show other nations how there can be political benefits to public-sector reform efforts. Vice President Gore's REGO effort has become the longest-running attempt to reform the federal government this century. Unlike most of its predecessors, NPR has made an extraordinary effort to show publicly why reform is necessary and how it can improve government performance. NPR Deputy Director Michael Messinger notes that the current exercise also benefits from the sustained interest of Gore himself--a degree of political commitment that can serve as a model for other national reform efforts.
The organizers of the January conference say it's just the first step toward a new international emphasis in Gore's reinvention project. A Web site dedicated to international collaboration will be unveiled by Gore on the second day of the meeting. Follow-up sessions are already planned. "We hope that this will be the first of many conferences," Kamarck says. "We want to create an ongoing dialogue in the world about innovations in government."
Alasdair Roberts is an associate professor of public management at Queen's University in Ontario, Canada.