Re-reinventing Government

May 25, 2010

Paul Light, an expert on the federal bureaucracy, has written a thoughtful essay in the Wall Street Journal that examines several cost-cutting efforts the government should undertake. Light suggests saving hundreds of billions of dollars by trimming managerial fat, eliminating positions through attrition, and making government employees more productive. He also suggests eliminating duplicative functions and unproductive programs such as agriculture subsidies.  

Light says the government is long overdue for comprehensive reform, and points to the “nearly 60 years since Herbert Hoover led the last streamlining effort.” He correctly acknowledges that “our federal bureaucracy has steadily thickened with reporting chains to nowhere, micromanagement, ineffective accounting systems, and needless red tape.”
But has it really been 60 years since the last effort to make our clunky bureaucracy operate more efficiently? What about former Vice President Al Gore’s “Reinventing Government”?
John Kamensky, the deputy director for Gore’s National Partnership for Reinventing Government, summarizes that effort:
The National Partnership for Reinventing Government (NPR), originally the National Performance Review, was the Clinton-Gore Administration’s interagency task force to reform and streamline the way the federal government works. It was the eleventh federal reform effort in the twentieth century. In creating NPR on March 3, 1993, President Clinton said: “Our goal is to make the entire federal government less expensive and more efficient, and to change the culture of our national bureaucracy away from complacency and entitlement toward initiative and empowerment.”
Based on the President’s challenge, Vice President Gore set out to create a government that “works better, costs less, and gets results Americans care about.” The President asked the Vice President to report on the findings of this National Performance Review within six months. Vice President Gore, however, went far beyond preparing a report and led an effort that evolved into the longest-running and most successful reform effort in U.S. history to date. After the initial report, the NPR team undertook the implementation of the many recommendations, then conducted a second round of reviews in 1995. In the second Clinton-Gore term, NPR changed its mission, approach – and name – to focus on leading a fundamental culture change in the government.
Note that Kamensky says that Reinventing Government was the eleventh reform effort in the twentieth century.
Kamensky cites a lot of apparent successes that Light now views as issues needing to be addressed. The following are just three, but Kamensky cites dozens:
  • Cut government the right way by eliminating what wasn’t needed – bloated headquarters, layers of managers, outdated field offices, obsolete red tape and rules. For example, cut 78,000 managers government-wide and some layers by late 1999.
  • Closed nearly 2,000 obsolete field offices and eliminated 250 programs and agencies, like the Tea-Tasters Board, the Bureau of Mines, and wool and mohair subsidies.
  • Catalyzed the use of mapping and other geographic information as an organizing tool for achieving cross-agency, intergovernmental policy results and accountability in public safety, smart growth, and responsive citizen services. 
Either Reinventing Government wasn’t quite so successful, or the federal government quickly went back to its bad old ways. It’s probably a combination of both.         
Trying to make government “work better” is a lot like the mythological Sisyphus who spent eternity trying to roll a boulder up a hill only to have it constantly roll back down. The boulder that is the federal government is simply too large to keep from rolling back down the hill. Reducing the boulder to a more manageable size is the only way to end the cycle. Therefore, the solution for the federal government’s bureaucratic woes is to downsize it so that it can focus on its core constitutional responsibilities.   
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