Political World<br> <p>Politician, Heal Thyself<p><i><font size="2">A new study of reform efforts argues that government's shortcomings aren't so much managerial as they are political.</i></font>
This year's campaign was no exception. Republican George W. Bush pledged "a departure from the old ways of government" while Democrat Al Gore promised changes that would make today's agency practices seem "as outdated and antiquated as government before the telephone." With both political parties apparently on the same wavelength, surely the stage is now set for a major wave of administrative changes that will whip Washington's much maligned civil servants into shape. But wait a minute. A newly published study of executive reform efforts over the past 30 years argues that government's shortcomings aren't so much managerial as they are political.
"If the U.S. system produces complexity, contradiction, bloated or inefficient programs, and unusually high degrees of restriction on managerial latitude, that is primarily the product of politicians, not bureaucrats," conclude political scientists Joel D. Aberbach of the University of California (Los Angeles) and Bert A. Rockman of the University of Pittsburgh in their book, In the Web of Politics: Three Decades of the U.S. Federal Executive (Brookings Institution Press, 2000). Their research painstakingly debunks three major myths about government: o The complaint that surfaced loudly during the Nixon administration that the bureaucracy is insufficiently responsive to its elected overseers. o The concern expressed by the 1989 Volcker Commission that the demoralization of the civil service has adversely affected the quality of its performance.
o The contention of the Clinton administration that the mechanisms of government no longer work properly and must be reinvented. Aberbach and Rockman, who began their study in 1970 and have conducted extensive interviews with hundreds of government executives over the ensuing decades, take issue with all three notions. They conclude that there has been no deterioration in the quality or morale of the civil service, nor any deterioration in its responsiveness to political authority. And they are skeptical about claims that basic governmental priorities can be made more rational simply by "introducing a variety of private sector techniques into public administration, such as making federal agencies more responsive to the preferences of what they call customers."
They agree that better government at a lower cost would be welcome and management reforms can help, but they dispute the premise that the bureaucracy is broken and in desperate need of repair. "Despite the management problems created by complex statutes and mandated procedures, it is not at all clear that the government works poorly from a management point of view, regardless of the hyperbole claiming it does," Aberbach and Rockman assert. "In fact," as they write, "on the whole, it seems to work pretty well, inasmuch as its performance is basically predictable and often lauded by its 'customers,' most of whom think they were treated fairly even by the dreaded Internal Revenue Service." The authors contend that administrative reforms "are almost always oversold as the cure to what ails government." Elected officials often see proposed management improvements as a means of "avoiding responsibility for hard and distasteful policy decisions. A case in point, they argue, is the Clinton administration's "government reinvention" initiative spearheaded by Gore, which "at one level [is] largely political theater-a way to look creative and justify cost constraints in a highly politicized environment."
Aberbach and Rockman caution that there may be pitfalls to the notion that government efficiencies can be achieved by emulating or relying upon the private sector. Challenging the assertions of some reform proponents that "businesses have customer satisfaction as their primary goal," the authors point out that profit is the primary goal of business and that "satisfying customers is a means to that end, but not the end in itself."
The authors also emphasize that privatization will require increased skills in awarding and managing contracts. "The opportunities for scandal or nonperformance of contracts increase with the number of services and goods under contract, particularly if there is inadequate guidance in writing the contracts and if downsizing . . . leaves insufficient personnel to monitor contract performance."
Increased reliance on the marketplace may also invite increased political interference. "Where there is extensive privatization and outsourcing, there will also be intense political struggles over distributive issues and the near certain defense by elected officials of inefficient, even negligent, contractors who are politically influential," the study warns.
In sum, if there is any prescription for curing the ills of government, Aberbach and Rockman argue that it is: Politician, heal thyself.
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