WASHINGTON -- Vice President Al Gore, who is consultin government workers in his efforts to rid the federal bureaucracy of waste and mismanagement, got an earful Monday from employees at Interior Department headquarters here.
Amiable and good-naturedly cajoling, Mr. Gore roamed the department's packed cafeteria Phil Donahue-style, microphone in hand, urging employees to talk about uncooperative management, or the "most ridiculous thing" they had ever bought with taxpayers' dollars.
"Have you ever come up with something that was maybe a little too creative and got your head chopped off" by management? he asked to a chorus of "Yes, yes."
"Does anybody want to talk about it?"
No response -- apart from a few giggles.
But after more urging, people began to open up, painting a picture of management that often is more concerned with
maintaining the status quo than with improving performance.
One man said he proposed a more efficient way of doing his job and his supervisor told him, "Government doesn't need to be efficient."
Other workers said upper-level managers feel "threatened" and worry too much about someone usurping their power.
"Would you say there are too many layers of management?" Mr. Gore asked the crowd.
"The private sector also came to that conclusion," Mr. Gore said, and businesses have started giving more responsibility to rank-and-file workers. "That simultaneously cut costs and improved services."
Mr. Gore urged employees to think of the American people as their customers, and to be creative and innovative as if they were in the private sector.
"If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got," he said.
His visit was one of many such sessions he is conducting at federal agencies as part of the administration's National
Performance Review, which he heads. The Gore task force report is due in September.
A key element to improving the government's performance is using "the brainpower of the people working in the agency, where the rubber meets the road," Mr. Gore told the crowd.
Workers told Mr. Gore that one of the government's primary inefficiencies is expensive and slow procurement procedures. One employee described how he needed a specific kind of extension cord and was told he couldn't get it because it wasn't in the government supply catalog. So he went to a hardware store and bought it, he said.
Another man said extension cords in the supply book cost $49, while at Radio Shack they are $14.
Another tremendous waste of funds comes at the end of each fiscal year when many government agencies spend their leftover money on things they don't need because their budgets will be cut the next year if they don't spend it all, workers told Mr. Gore.
One employee said his agency had bought unnecessary and "ugly computer stations" at the end of the year -- "without consulting us to see if we wanted them."
Americans who think of government employees as lazy people trying to avoid the challenges of a real job might have been surprised at the enthusiastic reception of another worker's idea: That it should be easier to fire federal workers who don't perform well.
When Mr. Gore asked how many agreed with that idea, almost everyone in the room raised a hand.