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Think tank urges Democrats to focus on government reform

Democrats need to make reforming government, including overhauling the civil service structure, a key policy issue, or they will continue to be painted as the party that supports "big government," a Democratic think tank asserted Thursday.

Democrats need to make reforming government, including overhauling the civil service structure, a key policy issue, or they will continue to be painted as the party that supports "big government," a Democratic think tank asserted Thursday.

In a paper titled "Network Government for the Digital Age," the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), the policy arm of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, argued that most Americans do not want smaller government, but they also do not trust the current structure of government to work efficiently. The paper outlines a framework for reforming government.

"What we need to do is focus on making government work instead of blindly defending it," said New Democrat Caucus co-Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash. "If progressive policies are to survive, government has to be made more efficient."

Among the key ideas in the reform framework, PPI calls for the government to make greater use of information technology, to reform the civil service so pay is tied closer to performance, to give agency leaders more flexibility in management and to demand accountability from managers. Another key point is shifting the focus of government to a new model of governance, in which there is more emphasis on funding a network of services instead of specific programs.

Reforming government has been a top priority of the Bush administration, which implemented the President's Management Agenda in 2001. It also unveiled an e-government strategy in early 2002 and has created several Web sites that consolidate services online. So far, the private sector largely has applauded administration efforts, and public use of the Web sites has risen.

Rob Atkinson, vice president at PPI and author of the government reform paper, said President Bush deserves credit for the reform work his administration has conducted, but he questioned whether the administration has placed too much emphasis on privatization of government jobs and not enough on improving public services.

"My concern is that they see privatization as a goal in itself rather than a means," Atkinson said.

Smith said there is nothing wrong with privatizing government jobs if doing so improves efficiency, but he worries that the focus on privatization is more on shrinking the size of government rather than making it better.

One area of the PPI plan that is likely to be controversial within the Democratic Party is its call for restructuring the civil service system. Smith said over the past six months that he has been reaching out to federal labor unions to discuss ways to provide managers with more flexibility and incorporate merit-based pay programs, but it is "really hard to change unions."

Still, Smith said he sensed an acknowledgement that no change makes it easier for Republicans to successfully paint Democrats as favoring big government.