Role of the "Reinventing Government" Movement in Federal Management Reform

By Kamensky, John M. | Public Administration Review, May-June 1996 | Go to article overview

Role of the "Reinventing Government" Movement in Federal Management Reform


Kamensky, John M., Public Administration Review


Vice President Al Gore (1995a; 12) often tells an anecdote about a taxidermist and a veterinarian who went into business together - outside their establishment hangs a sign that guarantees "either way you get your dog back." This story serves as a metaphor for the political struggles surrounding the balanced budget debate and the role of the federal government in American life. Should the federal government be "stuffed" and hung on the wall as a trophy, or should it be nursed back to health?

This was not what the Brownlow Committee (President's Committee, 1937; 4) faced in its work back in 1937, when the goal of government reform seemed more clear. That committee declared: "There is but one grand purpose, namely, to make democracy work today in our National Government; that is, to make our Government an up-to-date, efficient, and effective instrument for carrying out the will of the Nation. It is for this purpose that the Government needs thoroughly modern tools of management." Today, the path is murkier as reformers set out to recast many of the principles relied upon by the Brownlow Committee so long ago.

Only weeks into his new administration, President Clinton (1993a) asked Vice President Gore to take on the challenge of nursing the institution of the federal government back to health: Not by making it bigger but by making it work better and cost less. Gore (1993c; 7) understood from the beginning that such an effort had to have not only a clear and compelling vision to be successful but that it had to have a solid set of principles and assumptions. He also knew that reinventing the federal government was not a one-time effort and that implementation would be more difficult than developing the initial set of recommendations (Gore, 1993a; 9).

Unlike the previous ten presidential reform initiatives of this century (Moe, 1992), Gore recruited his staff from career civil servants (see gray box for details of the approach used). He faced a six-month deadline for presenting a set of recommendations to the President, who believed most of the problems in the federal government had already been well documented and that the most important thing was to develop quickly an agenda, then spend much of his first term in office focusing on implementing it. As Clinton put it,

Here's the most important reason why this report is different from earlier ones on government reform. When Herbert Hoover finished the Hoover Commission, he went back to Stanford. When Peter Grace finished the Grace Commission, he went back to New York City. But when the Vice President finished his report, he had to go back to his office - 20 feet from mine - and go back to working to turn the recommendations into reality (Gore, 1994b; 8).

Another characteristic that made this review different was that the focus is on changing the internal culture of government agencies by changing the incentives employees face in doing their work, rather than investing the administration's political capital in restructuring the missions and organization of the government. As Gore (1993c; ii) noted in his first NPR report: "The National Performance Review focused primarily on how government should work, not on what it should do. Our job was to improve performance in areas where policy makers had already decided government should provide a role."(1) Osborne (1993; 264), an advisor to NPR, elaborated on this when he said: "To change behavior within the federal government, we must change the basic incentives that shape that behavior. We much create a new set of dynamics - through the use of competition, the measurement of results, the decentralization of authority, and the creation of real consequences for success and failure."

Conventional wisdom has long suggested that governmental reform is undertaken largely as a political symbol. But there is a difference between reinvention and the traditional restructuring approach to reform. The former focuses on incentives, the latter on structure. …

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