WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's call on the American people to help the Washington bureaucracy pull its socks up in a six-month "national performance review" sounds like part Ross Perot, part Ronald Reagan and part Jimmy Carter -- all of whom campaigned without much result on shaping up big, bad government.
Perot didn't get the chance, but was up on Capitol Hill this week anyway tossing around his sound-bite advice. Reagan talked as a candidate in 1980 about "getting government off the backs" of Americans but wound up giving them even more of it after eight years in the White House. Carter campaigned in 1976 on a pledge to reduce 1,900 government agencies to 200 -- and after his election forgot about it.
This history has generated a general attitude of skepticism about the ability of any administration to reduce the size of
government in any substantial way, or even to make it work more efficiently. In the hands of the two resident policy wonks of 1993 -- Clinton and Vice President Al Gore -- it may actually produce results, but just as a public-relations gambit, it is notable in at least one respect.
The idea -- and the language in which Clinton couched it in his White House unveiling -- is another conspicuous appeal to the approximately 19 million souls who saw their salvation last Nov. 3 in Ross Perot. Beyond calling for internal reviews of all departments and agencies by Cabinet members and the bureaucrats themselves, Clinton asked "government's customers, the American people," to pitch in. Or, as Perot would say, "It's your country."
Just as Perot and Democratic candidate Jerry Brown did, and eventually Clinton himself as well, the president told citizens a toll-free 800 telephone number would be provided to them for transmitting their ideas about cutting government waste and improving government services to Gore, who will be in charge of the campaign to "reinvent government."
Also, the whole Clinton message on the "performance review" constituted an indictment of how government now works, in the Perot pattern. He did tip his hat to federal employees (who are having their cost-of-living adjustments frozen by him) by saying "they know better than anyone else how to do their jobs if someone will simply ask them and reward them for wanting to do it better." But he also said his goal was "to change the culture of our national bureaucracy away from complacency and entitlement toward initiative and empowerment."
When, during the 1992 campaign, Clinton spoke repeatedly about pairing opportunity with responsibility, he was most often referring to the costly and inefficient welfare system, and snapping welfare recipients out of their dependency on government. In a similar sense, he is calling on bureaucrats to stop being clock-watchers and time-clock punchers and breathe new life into their daily work and goals.
The suggestion-box approach to improving government has *T been around a long time, with participating bureaucrats earning bonuses for inventing new widgets or ways to make the old ones work better. What has been lacking is a sense that any of it makes much difference in the huge machinery of government. But as a way to signal at the start of a new administration that the man in charge intends to shake things up, a well-publicized "national performance review" does have merit.
Clinton says he was successful with such a review in Arkansas when he was governor, and he has recruited state comptroller John Sharp, the chief author of a similar effort in Texas that was credited with a major consolidation of state agencies and significant savings.
But Jimmy Carter as governor of Georgia boasted of reducing state government from 300 agencies to 22 in a single term and learned that coping with the Washington bureaucratic maze was something else again.
In placing the whole review under Gore, Clinton is doing his vice president no big favor. As those phone calls and postcards come streaming in from John Q. Public, and he has to deal with heads of departments and agencies already put through the wringer of budgetary decision-making, Gore may come to have a new appreciation of what's involved in playing second fiddle.