Government Executive

Requiem for Reinvention

By now, Al Gore's reinventing government campaign has been shut down, boxed up and shipped to wherever a former vice president's programs go. The question is whether reinvention, in some form or other, will live on in the federal agencies and employees Gore worked so hard to change.

The answer is doubtful at best. Advertised as the longest and most successful government reform effort in American history, reinventing government is likely to have a very short afterlife. If so, reinventing government will be a victim of its own design. From the very beginning, the reinventors eschewed the kind of legislative reform that lasts longer than one administration. Except for the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act, which produced dramatic gains in procurement efficiency, and the Government Performance and Results Act, which originated in Congress, reinventing government largely depended on executive action. Having concluded that Congress was to blame for making a mess of the executive branch and recognizing that President Clinton was unwilling to throw the full weight of his office behind legislative reform, the reinventors were forced to wage their campaign with little more than pats on the back and permission slips for federal bureaucrats ready to take risks.

Their efforts produced results across the bureaucracy, particularly where presidential appointees were committed to the cause. But there was virtually no congressional support, leaving the movement's ultimate fate to Vice President Al Gore's electoral success. The reinventors had few friends on Capitol Hill, even when Democrats were in control, and failed repeatedly to build bridges with potential Republican allies such as Ohio Sen. George Voinovich, who arrived on Capitol Hill in 1999 with enormous enthusiasm for government reform.

The reinventors also avoided contact with traditional good-government groups, such as the National Academy of Public Administration and the Council for Excellence in Government, and wanted little to do with the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Personnel Management, the federal inspectors general and the General Accounting Office, all of which they viewed more as part of the problem than of the solution. Created as a quasi-independent unit appended to the vice president's office, the campaign to reinvent the government operated with enormous autonomy and little accountability. Its leaders could not, and would not, testify before Congress, and its directives were kept in virtual space at a Web site (www.npr.gov), whose days were numbered when the new administration arrived.

Convinced that statutory reform was either impossible or unnecessary, the reinventors were left with a number of weak devices for spurring change. Reinventing was poorly linked, if at all, to the employee performance appraisal process, and carried few, if any, budgetary or personnel consequences. It simply did not matter to the things that matter to agencies—money and headcounts. Federal employees could earn Hammer Awards for reinventing government, but not bigger budgets or a more forgiving congressional committee.

This is not to argue that such awards are meaningless to those employees. When coupled with lasting changes in the way the federal government hires, fires and rewards the civil service, and with structural reforms designed to reduce needless layers of bureaucracy, such awards can accelerate the drive toward improvement. But absent durable reforms, awards can sometimes serve to remind employees that they have achieved success more in spite of their organizations than because of them.

The same complaint can be made regarding the use of customer satisfaction surveys as tools for disciplining agencies and employees. Despite compelling evidence that such surveys often have more to say about respondents' political ideologies than actual experience, the reinventors have long argued that customer satisfaction should be given extra weight in evaluating the progress of reform. It did not matter how agencies picked the customers to survey as long as they picked someone.

Customer satisfaction surveys might be the one piece of reinvention to survive in the Bush administration. Few would expect the administration to interview the same customers, however. The Environmental Protection Agency surveyed reference librarians under Gore, for example. But a survey of regulated parties would be more plausible under Bush.

This dim epitaph for reinventing government suggests at least three ingredients needed for more vibrant efforts in future administrations.

Statutes. Although congressional action is always difficult, it outlives the end of administrations in a way that executive directives cannot. Structure. The federal hierarchy is just as thick today as it was eight years ago. Indeed, considerable evidence suggests that the most senior levels of the hierarchy are even thicker. As of 1998, the Clinton administration had created 16 new layers at the top of government. That's how many were initiated in all the administrations from Kennedy through Bush (senior). That is the cost of letting a thousand flowers bloom without doing any weeding. Bipartisanship. Reinventing government would be alive today if it had been rooted in a bipartisan agreement on the need for big government reforms. It is a lesson well worth remembering if and when the Bush administration tries its hand at some sort of reinventing.