The Right Way to Streamline Bureaucracy ; the Bush Administration Should Focus on Management and Ideology, Not Individual Programs

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The Bush administration's audacious plan to create a sunset commission to review every last federal program and agency is now facing its own congressional sunset. Under intense opposition from interest groups that represent thousands of potential targets, the commission is now stalled in the House and Senate and seems unlikely to survive the fall.

There are good reasons to worry about the Bush proposal. By creating a commission that would operate at least until 2026, the administration's proposal would create a platform for terminating programs. Coupled with fast-track, up-or-down congressional review, the sunset commission would have unprecedented authority to eliminate any program that did not measure up to the fuzzy criteria the administration has proposed.

More important, the Bush proposal misses the forest for the trees. By focusing on individual programs, the administration ignores the much more important governmentwide problems that currently frustrate performance. Poorly designed programs did not undermine the federal response to hurricane Katrina - bad management did; poor intelligence did not produce the rush to war in Iraq - ideology did.

If the Bush administration truly wants to deal with poorly performing programs, it should propose an entirely different national commission with a much broader mission. Instead of focusing on programs, such a commission should focus on the management practices that have produced a cascade of recent failures. Given the same fast-track legislative authority to give its proposals a fighting chance, an astutely independent commission just might be able to tackle the persistent problems that plague all aspects of federal management.

It should certainly examine long-overdue reforms in the federal personnel system, which continues to fail at virtually every task it was designed to do. It is slow and confusing on hiring, permissive on promoting, lax on disciplining, and negligent on paying for performance. As a result, today's merit system includes plenty of process, but very little merit. The hyper-inflated annual appraisal process assures that pay goes up for everyone, while the sluggish disciplinary process assures that bad performance goes mostly unpunished.

The commission should also address the continued thickening of the bloated federal hierarchy. Despite its commitment to businesslike management, the Bush administration has overseen one of the largest expansions of the executive hierarchy in recent history. Thus far, the administration has added 13 new layers to the top of government, including soon-to-be classic titles such as deputy associate assistant secretary. …