Reinvention remembered: A look back at seven years of reform

It began with a simple yet ambitious mandate: to create a government that "works better and costs less." Now, more than seven years after Vice President Al Gore first issued his call to reinvent government, reinvention has come to an end.

After two phases and multiple slogans, the National Partnership for Reinventing Government (NPR) has closed up shop, ending Gore's long-term effort to improve government performance by adapting private sector management techniques. Overall, the "REGO" crusade, as it came to be known, received mixed reviews. While experts touted NPR's efforts to streamline procurement methods, eliminate outdated programs and create performance-based organizations, Gore's team was criticized for focusing heavily on cutting federal jobs. But even as NPR shuts its doors, a look at President-elect Bush's campaign proposals shows government reform is here to stay.

Gore launched the reinventing government campaign as the National Performance Review in March 1993. While President Clinton initially viewed NPR as a vehicle to yield quick budget cuts, Gore and key advisor David Osborne broadened NPR's portfolio to conduct a review of how the government worked. Staffed by 250 career civil servants drawn from dozens of agencies, NPR set about to examine how governmentwide activities such as procurement and financial management could be improved.

The result was a report detailing 1,250 specific actions intended to improve government operations and trim $108 billion from the federal budget. Among the report's recommendations were proposals to privatize the Federal Aviation Administration and cut 252,000 jobs from the federal workforce. Ultimately 377,000 federal jobs were cut.

Following the report, NPR refocused to assist individual agencies in implementing its recommendations. Led by "Energizer-in-Chief" Bob Stone and an increasingly active Gore the office helped each Cabinet agency develop performance agreements with the White House. It also created the coveted Hammer Awards to reward innovative federal employees and contractors.

After Republicans gained control of Congress in 1994, Clinton asked Gore to launch a second phase of his reinventing government effort. REGO II proposed deep cutbacks and mergers amongst departments, in part to neutralize Republican calls to scrap entire agencies. The effort fell short of remaking government, but it caused massive reform in some agencies. The General Services Administration overhauled its operations and the Office of Personnel Management cut its workforce by half. NPR also took aim at the regulatory system, identifying 16,000 pages of regulations to be eliminated.

When Clinton's second term began, Gore pledged to turn several federal offices into performance-based organizations (PBOs), in which executives would receive autonomy from procurement and personnel rules in exchange for meeting tough performance standards. The PBO concept of making agencies operate like private companies won high marks from reinvention watchers, but only three PBOs had been authorized as NPR shut down: the Education Department's Office of Student Financial Assistance (OSFA), the FAA's air traffic control unit, and the Commerce Department's Patent and Trademark Office.

As the PBO movement slowly spread, NPR gave itself a makeover. It changed its name to the National Partnership for Reinventing Government and adopted a new mission centered around restoring trust in government. Focusing on 32 "high-impact" agencies, NPR launched employee and customer satisfaction surveys and tied the evaluation of senior agency leaders to their results. In another effort to improve the government's customer-focus, Gore created "No Gobbledygook" awards to recognize federal workers who rewrote complex regulations in plain language.

Despite these efforts to connect REGO to the public, polls showed a majority of Americans were unfamiliar with Gore's reinventing government initiative as he began his presidential bid. And NPR had long since become a lightning rod for congressional criticism. Still, as the Clinton administration concluded, NPR director Morley Winograd could point to $137 billion in government savings achieved through NPR-led initiatives and take credit for changing the government culture to be more performance-based.

In all, about 1,300 career employees passed through the reinvention office since its creation in 1993.

Looking ahead, experts see many lessons for the Bush administration in NPR's seven-year odyssey. In particular, scholars say the President himself must take an active interest in government reform for it to be successful.

"Reinventing government failed in part because it didn't have President Clinton's attention," said Brookings Institution scholar Paul Light. "As much as Gore worked it to death, it never garnered much attention from Clinton."