Year One of the 'Reinvented' Government


Washington.--The "Contract with America" offered up on the Capitol steps last week by Republican House members and candidates makes no bones about the fate of the federal establishment if the Republicans seize control of Congress next month.

Government is depicted as the chief culprit for virtually all that ails America. So it's to be chopped down to smaller size with tax cuts, constitutionally mandated balanced budgets, a redone and slimmed-down crime bill, privatized government functions, and term limits on legislators.

But curiously, the Republicans totally ignore the biggest effort in many years to reform and thin Washington bureaucracy -- Vice President Gore's "reinventing government" initiative. It's as if the year-old National Performance Review just didn't exist.

Maybe it's because the Republicans don't think the initiative is important enough, or well known enough to voters. And possibly, they're right. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that while 68 percent of Americans believe President Clinton wants a more efficient government, only 35 percent have even heard of the Clinton-Gore reinvention effort, and 78 percent believe the administration has made little or no progress toward making government more efficient.

In reality, there has been a feverish year of activity trying to make the National Performance Review really work. Rules and procedures have been simplified across the federal establishment. The Office of Personnel Management has junked the nightmarish 10,000-page Federal Personnel Manual. A Clinton-appointed National Partnership Council, composed of top political appointees and federal union leaders, is working on changes to the civil-service system.

A number of agencies -- Interior, Energy, Housing and Urban Development, the Social Security Administration in particular -- have focused on "reinventing" themselves. A President's Management Council, composed of chief operating officers from departments and major agencies, has begun to oversee and coordinate government-wide streamlining. "Reinvention labs" have sprouted across the federal landscape. A bill to overhaul Washington's $200-billion-a-year procurement systems is awaiting the president's signature.

A recent Brookings Institution evaluation of the National Performance Review, even while faulting several of its elements, said it "has the potential, together with the New Deal and Hoover commissions, to be one of the three most important administrative initiatives of the 20th century."

The political potential of the initiative may be dimmed by the depth and pervasiveness of the public's discontent with government. Perhaps management reforms alone will never race people's motors. Bradley Patterson Jr., a veteran of White House and other federal service, suggests that what people are really "steamed up about" is government policies -- from gun control to grazing fees to abortion -- and much less whether government services get provided efficiently or not.

Even Mr. Gore, note critics, is conveying a contradictory message: on the one hand harping on outrageous examples of the bureaucracy run amok, on the other insisting that progress is being made toward "a government that works better and costs less."

Some of the review's admirers worry that Messrs. Clinton and Gore made a serious mistake in associating a reinvented government with the goal of trimming more than 270,000 workers from the federal payroll -- alienating the federal work force that must be counted on to make the reforms work.

The Democratic Congress then made things worse. It failed to tackle any kind of omnibus bill to relieve the bureaucracy of red-tape busywork or to guarantee worker training and upgraded technology. Then it took the entire $30 billion in five years' anticipated savings from the recommended worker cuts and assigned the money to a trust fund to finance a single bill the lawmakers lacked the courage or wits to finance directly -- the 1994 crime bill.

Still, the National Performance Review is the best news in decades for people who care about truly effective and responsive governance in America. The Republicans shouldn't be ignoring it; they should either embrace it, or tell us how they could do the job even better. Because no matter which party rules, government will remain a massive business, affecting every aspect of our lives and our international competitiveness.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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