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Trying to make sense of government

A cynic might be justified in seeing a call for a sweeping reorganization of the federal government as the last refuge of a politician who doesn't want to ruffle any ideological feathers.

So what is one to make of his pledge to build a "21st-century government that's open and competent" and "driven by new skills and new ideas"?

In fact, this new emphasis is long overdue. A response of pure skepticism would be a mistake, in part because progressive presidents have more of an interest in improving government's performance than conservatives do. At this moment, the American right's main objective is to reduce the size of government radically, which gives conservatives a stake in proving that government can't do anything competently.

On the other hand, progressives have large expectations of government. These can only be met if it performs exceptionally well. And citizens won't see this as a realistic hope unless progressive politicians work hard to make government more efficient, more effective and more responsive.

But this cannot mean just moving around government's boxes, shifting this agency from one place to another, or merging that department with another. Max Stier, president and CEO of the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, likes to cite the 9/1 1 Commission Report's observation that "the quality of the people" in government is "more important than the quality of the wiring diagrams."

"Washington is a city that likes to focus on the wiring diagram," he said in an interview, because changing the diagram "feels like they're doing something concrete when, actually, they're avoiding the problems."

Above all, Obama needs to build on the efforts he has already undertaken to fix the micro parts of government. These repairs are more important to success than any macro reorganization plan.

The paradox is that the administration has already taken significant steps to improve the way the government buys things, the way it deploys information technology and the way it hires people. It just hasn't focused much attention on them.

Hiring reform is especially important because the retirement of baby boom-era public servants will require the government to bring in new talent. If Obama did nothing else but win new respect for public service and entice a new generation of talented young Americans to join its ranks, he will have achieved a revolution in government.

Jack Lew, the OMB director, insists the administration is aware that the micro matters. "If we don't continue to make progress in procurement, human resources and IT, it won't be for lack of effort," he said in an interview. He added that the administration has no intention of rushing ahead with a massive and disruptive reorganization of agencies. "The point of this project is to do this in a serious way."

Enacting sweeping legislation, cutting taxes or spending in a big way, enunciating great ambitions: all these get far more attention from the media and from politicians than the tough, grubby and very hard work of implementing programs, hiring people to carry them out and managing (and, yes, inspiring) one of the largest work forces in the world.

Former Vice President Al Gore defined the core purpose of his Clinton-era "reinventing government" project with great simplicity. "We don't want to get rid of government," he said. "We want it to work better and cost less. We want it to make sense." And this is a goal that still makes sense.

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