Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Reform's Changing Role

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Reform's Changing Role

Article excerpt

President Clinton initiated the National Performance Review in March 1993. Bill Clinton had campaigned promising change in government, and comprehensive executive reorganization would be part of that effort. Clinton claimed the National Performance Review would be "a historic step.... We intend to redesign, to reinvent, to reinvigorate the entire national government" (Clinton, 1993; 351).

Executive reorganization has a history, contrary to the president's claim for novelty in his initiative. There is a 90-year-old old tradition of executive-centered administrative reform (Arnold, 1986). President Clinton is the 13th president in this century to initiate or embrace comprehensive reorganization or reform, using these terms interchangeably. Why did President Clinton initiate an effort to improve administration? Is he committed to reversing what Ronald C. Moe has described as the tendency of recent presidents to doubt "that a comprehensive organizational strategy is necessary for achieving their political or policy objectives..." (Moe, 1990; 129)? Does the National Performance Review address the nexus of managerial and political issues that have concerned executive reorganization historically? Some insight can be gained on this contemporary use of administrative reform by examining it in the historical context of past efforts at executive reorganization.

The tradition of commentary in public administration that addresses administrative reform tends to take this enterprise as a wholly explicit and rational activity. That is, we comprehend comprehensive reorganization and reform efforts in terms of their own publicly stated purposes. They are understood as organized, rational efforts to improve administration (DiIulio, Garvey, and Kettl, 1993; Rosenbloom, 1993).

What public administration commentary has characteristically missed is that comprehensive executive reorganization has always had two different purposes, pursued simultaneously. First, and most evident, executive reorganization engages in administrative repair - its explicit and rational activity. It is a means for the adjustment of complex bureaucratic systems. Administrative structures and processes require adaptation to changing policies and contexts. Recurrent comprehensive reorganization efforts addressed the implications of changing administrative circumstances for process and organization.

Second, and implicit, comprehensive reform in the United States engages also in what may be called regime-level politics (Arnold, 1988). It has been a means for fitting administration to the fundamental political contours of the American regime. Through its conceptualization of administration, the problems it addresses, its language, and its recommendations, every reorganization episode relates administration to political authority (March and Olsen, 1989; 69-94). Properly understood, executive reorganization is more than administrative improvement dutifully undertaken by presidents; presidents are not altruists. Rather, throughout this century, presidents have initiated comprehensive reorganization planning to cope with fundamental political issues entailed in the relationship of authority to administration in the American separation of powers regime.

Comprehensive executive reorganization planning began early in this century with assumptions about administration that emboldened presidents to use reorganization to justify and strengthen executive governance. Does President Clinton seek through the National Performance Review the kind of managerial leverage over expanding government that Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Richard Nixon sought in reorganization?

This question about the National Performance Review ties administrative history to policy analysis. The aim here is to use executive reorganization's history to highlight changes in its contemporary uses. The analysis is developed in three stages. The first part recounts the way public administration theory helped legitimize executive power in the American separation of powers regime. …

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