Gore's efficiency report has bureaucrats nervous


WASHINGTON -- Like beachfront property owners expecting a big storm, federal employee union leaders are taking precautions against Hurricane RE-GO -- as bureaucrats have dubbed the Reinventing Government report Vice President Al Gore will release next week.

Union officials will have a private briefing with Mr. Gore tomorrow. The vice president has spent the summer evaluating the federal bureaucracy, and is under increasing pressure to cut workplace and work force expenses and improve services at the same time.

If the union leaders don't like what they hear, they will have to keep their disappointment to themselves until after Labor Day, if White House rules are followed. But many are already worried that sweeping changes could whisk away members' most prized benefits and pay provisions.

The Reinventing Government team had planned to recommend mostly administrative changes to correct inefficiencies. During the Capitol Hill debate over President Clinton's budget, many lawmakers called for deeper cuts in personnel costs.

The National Association of Retired Federal Employees has had little voice in this summer's consultation with Mr. Gore's National Performance Review team. That makes their legislative director, Judy Park, all the more worried that retiree benefits might be a target.

"Federal retirees will go ballistic if this all means further cuts in retirement benefits . . . ," Ms. Park says.

Many proposals to reform the federal bureaucracy have been proposed in the past, such as increasing the earliest retirement age to 62 and calculating final retirement benefits on an employee's five highest-paid years of employment. Currently, the earliest retirement age is 55 and the retirement benefit is calculated on an employee's three highest-paid years.

"If this report comes in and talks about changes in benefits, you'll just see across-the-board opposition," Ms. Park says.

The president of the Senior Executive Service also has concerns that its ranks could be in for some fiscal pain. If locality pay is implemented, for example, SES leader Carol Bonosaro says she wants her members included, as they would not be under some proposals.

"We're going to have a real concern that that be done," she says. On the administrative front, Ms. Bonosaro worries that a possible loosening of management hierarchies might weaken the work force.

"I think the trick is how to walk the fine line between flexibility and assuring you adhere to merit principles in any relevant statutes," Ms. Bonosaro said. "We are going to look very closely at how every agency runs its senior executive service. We're not going to have some basic floor of expectations."

Leaks of early drafts of Mr. Gore's review have reportedly shown that he will recommend two-year federal budgets rather than chaotic annual wrangling to produce a fiscal plan. Federal employee unions probably will support such a proposal, representatives predict.

Another leaked proposal would require every call to the Social Security Administration's toll-free customer service to be answered on the first try. Some citizens, trying to check a benefit claim, change their address or report a lost card, have gotten busy signals or endless unanswered ringing when they used the 800 number.

John Gage, president of Local 1923 of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents SSA employees, does not have a problem with the goal of getting the phones answered, as long as administrators understood what it would take to meet it.

"That's great. We've been arguing for that for years," Mr. Gage says. "You just wouldn't believe how bad our people feel when phones are ringing and you don't have people to answer them."

Additional manpower is the main ingredient for such improved service, Mr. Gage says. "If they're expecting that by just instituting a rule as a performance requirement, that's just whistling in the wind."

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