McCain pledges to reorganize federal workforce

John McCain during a May 3 presidential debate. John McCain during a May 3 presidential debate. Jim Ruymen/Landov

Republican presidential contender John McCain outlined a comprehensive platform for government management reforms Monday, describing steps he would take to boost federal pay and speed firings, tie program funding to yearly evaluations and toughen acquisition rules.

"I am a conservative, and I believe it is a healthy thing for Americans to be skeptical about the purposes and practices of public officials, and refrain from expecting too much from government," the Arizona senator was to say in an Oklahoma City policy address, according to an advance copy of the speech.

"We must streamline our workforce. . . . promote excellence at every level based on merit and accountability, and not let good workers be crippled by the fine print of the latest union contract," McCain said in an address that at times expressed a poor view of public servants.

Citing projections that 40 percent of the federal workforce is slated to retire in the next 10 years, McCain said, "This is an opportunity to reorganize the entire federal workforce. We can instill in the next generation of public servants higher aspirations and a greater sense of purpose. I'll devote the necessary resources to it. We can use this opportunity to make sure that government pay scales allow us to attract the finest public servants, equip them with the newest technologies, target replacements judiciously, and change government to make it smaller, less expensive, better skilled, and more dedicated to the national interest."

The candidate said a "new bargain" with federal employees would include more speedy firings, as seen in the private sector. He described the civil service as a "no-accountability zone, where employment is treated as an entitlement, good performance as an option and accountability as someone else's problem."

On federal programs, McCain promised to directly tie funding decisions to annual evaluations. The Bush administration has taken a step in that direction with its Program Assessment Rating Tool, which has been used to evaluate almost all federal programs over the past five years. Faced with pushback from lawmakers who argue budgeting is their prerogative, administration officials have insisted the PART ratings are not used to dictate funding but to provide helpful information.

McCain said as president he would press that link further. "We'll find some good performers, and I'll be proud to recognize them," he said. "But when we do not, performance will determine whether they are funded the next year. Government programs will be judged for the success they've had in meeting a need that people can't be expected to meet for themselves."

McCain also singled out acquisition reform, delving into details of contracting that other presidential hopefuls like Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani have steered clear of so far.

Citing "more than 100 studies [that] have identified the same problems over and over again for many years," McCain embraced a slate of measures. He said he would expand the use of fixed price contracts, but make sure the government uses realistic cost estimates. He promised to limit sole-source awards and make sure acquisition programs set clear requirements from the outset.

While contractors cringe at talk of fixed prices, McCain said he would welcome private sector ideas into the folds of government. Saying that government responded more slowly to Hurricane Katrina than did Wal-Mart, the candidate said new emergency operations centers should include business operations units to coordinate with the private sector. New federal liability protections should protect companies working with government to respond to disasters, he said.

With a nod to the number of inspectors general currently pulled into investigations of alleged bad behavior, the senator said that in a McCain administration, every inspector general would have direct access to the head of the department, who in turn would be held responsible for integrity.

"I know these reforms won't be easy," McCain concluded. "An entire bureaucracy has grown comfortable in its cocoon of rules and regulations and is not about to change its habits without a fight."

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