After the Reforms

Donald F. Kettl
Donald Kettl
Donald F. Kettl Donald F. Kettl is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution as well as Professor Emeritus and former Dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy

April 1, 1998

The Clinton administration has boldly proclaimed the success of the first phase of its reinventing government movement, the launch of a second phase promoting ?America @ Our Best,? and the end of the era of big government. All in all, that?s an impressive claim and an ambitious agenda. But if all this is true, why has it failed to ignite public opinion and transform the national debate over the future of American government? After all, the Clinton administration?s reward for hard work on the first phase of reinventing government was voters giving Republicans control of both houses of Congress for the first time in a generation.

It is true, not completely, but enough certainly for the administration to have a right to crow. Vice President Al Gore has celebrated his effort as one of ?the best-kept secrets in government? and proclaimed (with the help of the cartoon character Dilbert) that government has become more ?businesslike.? Gore wrote, ?government reinvention is happening,? marked by the smallest federal civilian workforce in more than 30 years, a reduction in red tape (especially for procurement), easier access to government agencies through better information technology, and improved customer service for citizens. In fact, Gore proudly proclaimed in 1997 that the federal government was being ?run like America?s best businesses.?

Now the administration is launching Phase II of reinventing government. The National Performance Review is now the National Partnership for Reinventing Government. It is moving to a new address and building ?the office of the future,? with far fewer desks than people. It promises a stronger focus on an information-age government and even better customer service. It has also broadened its focus to build a ?safe and healthy America,? ?safe communities,? a ?strong economy? and the ?best-managed government ever.? The administration is focusing its efforts on 32 ?high-impact agencies? that deal most directly with citizens, and where the failure to reform quickly?as in the case of the IRS?could undermine the entire effort.

The strategy is clear:

  • Move past downsizing, which hurt morale inside the government and failed to win political points outside.
  • Build on the demonstrable successes in reforming government?s process, like customer service.
  • Prevent future IRS crises.
  • Broaden the initiative?s political appeal by focusing on the policy problems that Americans care most about.

The strategy is in part political. Al Gore is best known for jokes about his stiffness, his interest in the environment and his effort to reinvent government. A Gore-for-President campaign will need to answer the question, ?What has reinventing government really accomplished??

The strategy is also an effort to reinvigorate the federal government reform movement, which has lost momentum over the last year. The goal: Build an information-age government managed as well as America?s best companies. The tactic: Use process reforms to motivate people on the inside and broad policy goals to excite people on the outside. And here is Phase II?s central dilemma. Its inside game focuses on improving the federal government?s performance. Its outside game, however, promises results that the federal government has little role in producing. Federal leverage over the economy is indirect at best, weak in the short term and hard to measure in any event. Local governments police the streets, even if they are aided by some extra cops funded by federal grants. The health and safety of the nation as a whole is obviously everyone?s first concern, but the forces that shape it are so complex that assigning responsibility (or, for that matter, blame or credit) is difficult indeed.

Phase II thus risks making pledges on which it can?t deliver and focusing government employees on processes indirectly linked at best with Phase II?s broader policy agenda. The gap between mega-politics and front-line management was always a problem for Phase I. Phase II, in the search for political relevance, threatens to make the gap unbridgeable. It?s a long, long way from better customer service and improved information technology to a strong economy and safe communities.

This isn?t to say that reinventing government doesn?t continue to be a good, even a splendid, idea. Even a casual survey of big national problems demonstrates clearly that the federal government requires significant management reform to solve them. The Federal Aviation Administration is worried about how to keep the air traffic control system working after New Year?s Eve in 1999. The Agriculture Department is struggling to develop new inspection systems to prevent food-borne illness. The IRS has a monumental problem of repairing its image (while, of course, getting people to do what they really don?t want to do to begin with). The Environmental Protection Agency is struggling to redefine its partnerships with the states to deal with a fresh generation of environmental problems. The Pentagon faces a huge challenge of modernizing its force as its budget shrinks.

Indeed, if we didn?t already have reinventing government, someone would have to invent it. No matter who wins the presidency in 2000, the President will have no alternative but to continue the reinvention campaign, no matter what it might be called.

Moreover, regardless of one?s views on the Clinton administration?s effort, it is impossible to miss the fact that government reform has become an important, and inescapable, global phenomenon. Governments from New Zealand to Canada, Australia to the United Kingdom, and from Korea to Brazil are knee-deep in fundamental transformation. Management reform is sweeping the American states and cities.

So, despite the critics of reinvention, there clearly is something important and fundamental going on here. The problem is figuring out exactly what.

The Real Problems Management reforms have been the constant?indeed, accelerating?answer to the problems of American governance, as Paul Light argues in The Tides of Reform (Yale University Press, 1997). But if reform is the answer, what is the question? The reinventing movement demonstrated yet again the American impulse toward endless tides of reform, with new waves washing over government but neither really attacking nor sharply defining its fundamental problems. The question buried in the foam is how to adapt America?s system of governance to emerging policy strategies that are neither hierarchically organized nor managed through authority. This is more than just a transition from the industrial age to the information age. It is the challenge of finding administrative leverage over the problems for which government is responsible and political support for hard choices that have to be made.

The inescapable reality is that the federal government is organized for a world that no longer exists. Government is organized hierarchically and managed through authority, but its fundamental strategies increasingly are neither. The federal government, in particular, does relatively little itself. It mails Social Security checks, manages air-traffic control, inspects meat, collects taxes, among other functions. But it does most of its work through contracts with the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors, grants to state and local governments, special provisions in the tax code, and regulations on corporate and individual behavior.

Tax breaks for home ownership dwarf federal spending for welfare. The Energy Department is little more than a hollow shell over a vast network of contractors. The actual provision of services in Medicare and Medicaid occurs through private doctors; private contractors (notably regional Blue Cross/Blue Shield operations) process the paperwork and mail the checks. Welfare reform works through federal devolution to the states, devolution by the states to local governments, and often contracting out by local governments to for-profit and not-for-profit organizations on the front lines. When welfare recipients seek to move from the dole to independence, few, and sometimes none, of the people they encounter will be government employees.

In the process, a fundamental mismatch has arisen between government?s formal structures and processes and the realities of what government does and how it does it. It is little wonder, therefore, that government has such a hard time doing its job. While the federal budget deficit has gradually evaporated, the federal performance deficit remains large and serious.

The Clinton administration?s reinventing government movement has achieved notable and impressive results. But at its core the effort has failed to grapple with this performance deficit and its underlying cause: the attempt to use processes built for hierarchical authority to run a government built heavily on partnerships and managed through proxies.

Reinvention cannot succeed at any level without a broader strategy for understanding and attacking the basic question: How can government organize itself to do the jobs that citizens now ask it to do? Indeed, the administration?s newest reinvention spin takes it even further from this central puzzle by widening the gap between the inside and outside games. Asking the question and producing effective answers requires coming to grips with the public attitudes toward government and the changing shape of government programs.

The Force of Public Opinion Poll results show the driving force of this question and the implications for failing to attack it. In 1997, the Council for Excellence in Government commissioned a Hart-Teeter poll which showed ?a striking loss of confidence compared to 20 years ago,? with the loss ?most pronounced at the federal level.? Only 22 percent of Americans have a ?great deal? or ?quite a lot? confidence in the federal government. State and local governments did better, but only marginally, with 32 percent and 38 percent confidence ratings, respectively. Nearly half of Americans believe that government has hindered, not helped, the search for the American dream. And 42 percent cannot name even one success of the federal government over the last 30 years. The government is ?not living up to citizens? expectations,? the pollsters found.

What causes such poor performance? The overwhelming majority of respondents (76 percent) say the problem lies in ?wasteful government spending.? Yet the respondents do not believe the cause is hopeless. More than three-fourths of those surveyed (77 percent) believe improved management could improve government effectiveness. Only 19 percent of respondents believe government is doomed to ineffectiveness no matter what it does. A majority of 54 percent say government?s top priority should be ?to make government more effective through better management,? instead of ?to make government smaller by cutting programs? (8 percent). The poll demonstrates an intuitive sense that the nation?s most important problems, its governing strategies and its management capacity are disconnected.

How can government truly be reinvented in ways that both reduce the performance deficit and restore public faith in government? The problem is deeply rooted in a system straining to do a job for which it was never designed.

The victory in the war against big government, to the extent it constitutes a real victory at all, is limited. Whatever rhetorical flourishes it feeds, it misses the critical problems. The revolution in government policy is creating new strategies for attacking social problems that lie far beyond the realm of experience.

The program-cutting, government-reinventing revolutions barely scratch the surface. After programs are cut, government faces the task of effectively delivering the programs that remain. Government faces the challenge of devising new systems for managing new strategies and producing quality service from a shrunken workforce.

Moreover, as government?s programs and delivery systems become more intricate, society faces the challenge of rethinking accountability. The question is how to hold government responsible for the programs that reach farther, through more difficult administrative processes, than ever before. To reduce its performance deficit and restore public confidence, government must manage effectively in a fuzzy-boundary world.

Crossing the Lines Government, especially at the federal level, is triply crippled. It does not have the apparatus, either intellectually or pragmatically, to cope with the policy world that has emerged. Policy-makers are incessantly cobbling together reforms that do not fully match the problems and then are not given enough time to see how productive they might be. If reinventing government is the answer, and if the question is how to deal with fuzzy boundaries, then how can American government deal with the gap between them?

Bridging the gap requires building connections among four approaches:

(1) Building organizations more on horizontal than vertical lines, as a supplement to (or perhaps a replacement for) hierarchical organization. Government has long been moving its production processes into strategies that require integration across hosts of boundaries. The trend began slowly, accelerated through World War II, and has been cemented by the major policy decisions of the second half of the 20th century.

Policy implementation depends on effective management of integrated policy networks. Reformers need to begin with the notion that networks, not hierarchies, define the government of the 21st century. They need to develop new relationships based on the management of processes (like contracts and devolution), products (like toxic-waste cleanup or welfare reform) and performance (especially the results that the networks produce). While this approach is still in its infancy, it offers great promise.

(2) Strengthening information technology to form the bridge across fuzzy boundaries. Organizations, public and private, are as much patterns of communication as systems to produce goods and services. When communication has to leap across organizational boundaries, communication problems inevitably multiply. From the tragedy of the Challenger disaster to mishaps in fighting wars, the importance of managing information is manifest. The problem multiplies as programs become more complex and the flood of data swells.

Tools must not be constrained by organizational hierarchies. Information, especially computer-based information, is just such a tool. Computers, the Internet, and the World Wide Web have rendered the hierarchy meaningless when it comes to collecting and analyzing information. From reducing fraud to improving service coordination, information technology provides a powerful tool.

However, government?s growing reliance on complex information systems has produced large risks as well as significant gains. The General Accounting Office has identified agencies ranging from the FAA to the IRS whose information system management problems threaten both loss of investment and system failure. Government needs to invest in the people smarts and the machinery needed to create and run effective information management systems.

(3) Relying on performance-based management to provide the incentives to cross the bridges. Managers must find a way to focus all of the organizations in the network on solving the same problems in the same way. Focusing on results provides the needed compass.

The Government Performance and Results Act, which requires agencies to identify strategic goals and their success in achieving them, is the keystone.

(4) Inspiring leadership to lead the crossings. Despite the development of new processes, technologies and measurement standards, public management remains a people problem. It is a matter most fundamentally of leadership.

The federal government needs to work much harder at recruiting, training, motivating and leading its workforce. That means fundamental civil service reform is an inescapable element of any real reinvention. And the more government relies on intricate partnerships and complex technologies, the more it needs effective leaders. The paradox of information-age government is that its performance depends more on the skill of its workers than ever before.

The Progressives reinvented government by believing it could tackle society?s most important problems through new structures and processes. American government at the dawn of the 21st century stands at the brink of a transformation just as fundamental.

Its elected officials and public managers must devise a system where responsibility for achieving results is increasingly shared across fuzzy boundaries. This is the question to which reinventing government is the answer. But success requires a much deeper understanding of the question and far more effective tools to bridge government?s fuzzy boundaries. That is the only way government?s performance deficit will narrow as the budget deficit has.