Nixon in China Redux: Reinventing Our Bloated Bureaucracy May Prove More Challenging Than Building Detente

Article excerpt

Pundits moved quickly to compare Vice President AI Gore's vision of a downsized, inside-out federal civil service with President Nixon's plan for detente two decades ago.

The comparison does not do justice to the Clinton agenda. Nixon may have hiked the Great Wall, but even he backed away from an attempt to push through a salary freeze targeted at the civil service. And Nixon was the last American president to even suggest such a move.

The problems of changing a bureaucratic mentality into bottom-line-oriented, empowered group-think are discussed in the story that starts on page 14. Underlying these changes are significant societal issues that should not be overlooked.

Here's what I mean: Once government front-line managers are empowered to follow the goals--but not necessarily to toe the fine lines-of the regulation book, the public will have to expect similar issues to be resolved in various manners.

"It's all well and good for a clerk at Nordstrom's to do whatever it takes to provide exceptional customer service." a mid-level federal employee pointed out to me recently. "But what if a staffer at the Veterans' Administration handles a problem one way, and across the country a similar issue is handled in an entirely different manner.?"

This scenario suggests that an empowered civil service is antithetical to the societal imperative that all citizens be treated alike and has led me to the unhappy condision that, if it is to function fairly, the government must operate with a certain degree of inefficiency. …