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Op-Ed

Requiem for Reinvention

Paul C. Light

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.

Author

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.

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