Clinton-era government downsizing offers lessons for current crisis

By Kellie Lunney

September 27, 2011

This story has been updated.

The political leadership should offer an overarching vision of how the federal government can operate more efficiently with fewer resources to help guide agencies during the current budget crisis, according to interviews with dozens of current and former public officials and observers compiled in a new report.

President Obama also should appoint a high-level official to lead a major governmentwide cost-savings effort, while Congress needs to give agencies flexibility in meeting their deficit reduction targets, according to the report from the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton.

The report recommends that agency leaders, along with the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget, regularly provide guidance and information to employees about cost-savings efforts, as well as how to use the best data available to determine budget priorities. The report offers a roadmap for the administration and Congress based on lessons learned from the Clinton-era reinventing government initiative and massive downsizing at agencies during the 1990s.

"We are going to be going through a period of difficult budget cuts," Office of Management and Budget Director Jack Lew said during an event Tuesday releasing the report.

Lew said the administration wants to give agency leaders the flexibility to make strategic cuts during the upcoming budget cycles to come up with a package that is right for every agency. He said he envisions OMB providing more counsel and less direction to agencies as they go through the difficult task of crafting lean budgets. Nevertheless, the burden for where and how agencies make those cuts will fall on agency leaders, Lew acknowledged.

Overall, four ingredients for success emerged from interviews with government officials and academics in the report:

A tough budget environment also can be a blessing in disguise, pushing government leaders to make positive changes that might not have been politically possible otherwise, the report said. "The situation presents a chance to rethink and restructure agency operations to serve the public more efficiently."

Lew said during his 30 years in government he has not witnessed the kind of political brinkmanship occurring in the current climate. And it's having a deleterious effect on public confidence in government. "There is a growing sense that government does not know how to do things right," he said.

The Partnership and Booz Allen Hamilton will hold four half-day workshops for agency leaders and senior managers beginning in December on the recommendations in the report.

By Kellie Lunney

September 27, 2011