To reinvent government, we should start at the top


Three things bother me about President Clinton's plan to "reinvent" government -- and that's not counting the observation that the whole effort seems like one of those Inside-the-Beltway solutions to an Inside-the-Beltway perception of a problem.

"The government is broken and we intend to fix it," declared the president Tuesday as he unveiled a 168-page report that purported to document the ills of the federal government. The report had the eye-catching title, "From Red Tape to Results: Creating a Government that Works Better and Costs Less," and it was produced after months of research by the 200-member National Performance Review task force, headed by Vice President Al Gore.

Problem is, who says the government is broken? Most people I know may gripe now and then about bureaucratic red tape but it is not the government that seems to have lost the public's confidence but the governors; not the bureaucrats but the politicians. How about reinventing the ruling class, Bill? How about a strategy that will help the high and mighty relate to life down here on the ground?

But that is a criticism of the underlying assumption that led to the study in the first place. The three things that bother me now have to do with the study's conclusions.

For instance, it bothers me that the president's proposed "reinvention" includes down-sizing, the corporate cure-all of the 1990s. The president has said he will cut the federal work force by 12 percent during the next five years -- the equivalent of more than 252,000 jobs. Some of those jobs will be eliminated through attrition, some through buy-outs. Other workers will be laid off.

This news comes at a time when the economy already is reeling from corporate America's current firing frenzy. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 6 million people have been laid off since 1987. Lay-offs and the fear of layoffs have dealt a severe blow to consumer confidence, with the result that the economy remains mired in a period of low growth. Meanwhile, a number of studies indicate that down-sizing has neither increased efficiency nor profits for companies. So, though the president appears to have pleased some political and business leaders by joining the down-sizing fad, he has not done a whole lot for consumer confidence and there is little proof that cutting the work force actually will improve service.

The second thing that bothers me is that his plan seems to cater to those who have no appreciation for the inherent inefficiency of a democratic government. We ask the government to assume those tasks that the private sector does not want to do, such as provide care for the sick and education for the poor. Government agencies assume tasks that by their nature are unprofitable. Also, government regulations often are the result of an attempt to reconcile conflicting interests, such as between environmentalists and industrialists. We can make the rules more efficient, but toward what end?

Finally, the president's strategy suggests that he continues to buy into the notion that he must prove to conservatives that he is a "new Democrat," though conservatives did not put him into office and it is unlikely he will ever win their confidence. What is a "new Democrat" anyway? Someone who does not "tax and spend?" Someone who is not "soft on crime?" Someone who is not "anti-business" and does not "coddle the poor?" Those are all conservative characterizations of liberal policies and have no relationship to reality.

None of the above objections to the president's strategy for change are meant to suggest that there is not a need for a government that moves from "red tape to results," and for a government that "works better and costs less." Bureaucrats often are unfriendly, officious, and inflexible. They can be so devoted to their precious rules and regulations that the spirit embodied in those rules is lost.

I believe there is a need for a kinder, gentler government -- a government less concerned with process and more devoted to helping people. But few people I know believe the real problem with government lies with the lowly, underpaid file clerks and secretaries and laborers who are most likely to get down-sized when big shots begin to reinvent. The part of the system that most needs fixing, unfortunately, is the fixers themselves. And somehow, they never get reinvented.

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