Reinventing government: Reflections 30 years later
Three leaders of government reinvention under Vice President Al Gore reflect on their favorite accomplishments and what they see as challenges for leaders of the future.
On Sept. 7, 1993, Vice President Al Gore presented his final report, “From Red Tape to Results: Creating a Government That Works Better and Costs Less” to President Bill Clinton in a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House before his Cabinet, members of Congress, and hundreds of civil servants who helped craft the report and its recommendations.
Looking back, three of his top advisors reflect on the accomplishments of the Reinventing Government initiative and what they see as key management challenges looking ahead.
- Elaine Kamarck served as a senior advisor to the vice president for Reinventing Government (1993-1997)
- Bob Stone served as the initial project director and energizer-in-chief for the National Performance Review (1993-1998)
- Morley Winograd served as director of the National Partnership for Reinventing Government (1997-2001)
What accomplishment are you most proud of from the National Performance Review?
Kamarck: I’m most proud of the fact that the reinventing government efforts of the Clinton years led the federal government’s transition into the information age. Whether it was slimming down layers of management, reforming procurement of information technology or focusing on customer service – most of those efforts remain today as standard operating procedures of the federal government.
Stone: I’m most proud of changing the culture of many of the government’s regulatory and enforcement agencies. They were all a little different, but they changed from being adversaries to being partners with the businesses and individuals they oversaw. Nobody at NPR invented, or conceived this change: renegades in the civil service were doing this out of the sight of their headquarters masters. Renegades like:
- Lynn Gordon at Customs and Border Protection, who changed the Miami airport operation to distinguish between smugglers and law-abiding importers and travelers.
- Bob Wenzel at the Internal Revenue Service, who changed the Fresno office to help taxpayers pay what they owed instead of treating all as likely cheats.
- Joe Thompson at the Veterans Affairs Department who changed the New York office to treat vets as valued customers.
- Marie Urban at the Food and Drug Administration, who taught her inspector force to help companies pass inspections.
- Joan Hyatt at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, who “signed up to protect the American worker,” and showed the agency how to do far better.
- Marjorie Buckholtz at the Environmental Protection Agency, who returned former brownfields to productive use by substituting common sense for bureaucratic rigamarole.
NPR’s role in this great transformation was to find the renegades, show them off to the rest of government as true reinventors, get Vice President Gore to sprinkle his fairy dust over them and protect them and their initiatives from often hostile headquarters.
Winograd: Creating the first customer satisfaction measurements of the federal government’s performance in the nation’s history. Creating these measurements allowed us to reinforce the agency leader’s need to pay attention to how their services were being delivered from the customer’s point of view. It led to many changes in fundamental operations, such as the IRS moving to an all-electronic service capability and to Social Security Administration offices around the country making sure their waiting times were shorter.
As the Pew study on trust in government showed, these kinds of performance improvements are what builds trust in government, one day at a time. In today’s highly polarized and cynical world, it is essential that we do more of this type of constant measurements of customer satisfaction in the delivery of federal government services, to provide a foundation on which to build higher levels of trust in our democratic form of government.
Looking ahead, what do you think is the biggest management challenge facing the federal government?
Kamarck: I’m still bothered by the fact that everyone has to file income tax returns. Way back in 1994 we published a paper, written by Greg Woods, outlining how, for the vast majority of Americans, the government could reconcile their taxes with a postcard. Back then the technical challenges were big and the plan more of a pipe dream. But today there’s no reason why we shouldn’t go back to this goal and allow Americans to file taxes easily.
Stone: The biggest management challenge facing the federal government is to harness the talent and enthusiasm of its workforce. Every cabinet and subcabinet member needs to go see workers, in their workplaces, and ask what would make them happier and more effective in their work; then do what they say. Yogi Berra once wisely said, “If people don’t want to come to the ballpark, nobody’s gonna stop them." Yogi’s advice applies to workers, too: If workers don’t want to give their best, nobody’s gonna stop them. It’s the number one job of management to get them to want to give their best.”
Winograd: The biggest management challenge facing the federal government is bringing a greater sense of accountability at all levels of our government. The 1993 Government Performance and Results Act was implemented during my tenure as director of NPR, which was a good legislative framework to encourage a heightened sense of accountability for results on the part of government agencies, but it received only lip service from the leadership at the Office of Management and Budget, leaving the bureaucratic culture focused on inputs and activities instead of outputs and outcomes pretty much intact.
Even though President Bush’s OMB did better to focus agencies on their GPRA measurements, at the lower levels of the bureaucracy accountability remained pretty much a foreign virus that the culture rejected. It is good to see President Biden’s interest in making sure things get done based on his own experiences as vice president, but there is little public evidence that he is using his current chief of staff’s own track record of delivering results to reinforce the need for further cultural change from the top levels on down to the front lines of our federal government when it comes to accountability for results.
John M. Kamensky served as a National Performance Review deputy director under all three of these advisors. He is a fellow with the National Academy of Public Administration and an Emeritus Fellow with the IBM Center for The Business of Government.