By Randolph J. May
Legal Times, October 9, 2000
Remember REGO! A stirring battle cry indeed, if only there had been a few more victories.
What-REGO doesn't ring a bell? If you fancy yourself a Washington player, you'll of course remember that REGO is shorthand for the administration's Reinventing Government initiative. And don't let on that you don't recall that the official moniker for the Reinventing Government effort was the National Performance Review, since renamed (in the spirit of reinvention) Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government.
Call it what you will. As Al Gore made clear in last week's debate, REGO always was his baby. (He often points out that REGO is "Gore spelled sideways.") Because he touts his leadership of the initiative as one of his major accomplishments, it's worth assessing how well REGO succeeded. And it's worth thinking about what's likely to be accomplished in the government reform realm by the next administration, regardless of who wins in November. So far, there's not much reason to be optimistic.
Consider the situation as it stands now. The 2000 Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance Programs indicates that the federal government operates 1,425 domestic assistance programs administered by 57 different agencies. In recent years, the General Accounting Office has issued several reports highlighting the patchwork of duplicative federal programs in various areas. A 1997 report identified hundreds of education programs "dispersed through over 30 agencies." And the GAO pointed to 163 different programs residing in 15 different federal organizations providing funds for employment training.
Complacency or Initiative?
Is this what President Bill Clinton had in mind when he first announced the REGO effort in March 1993? Back then, he said: "Our goal is to make the entire federal government both less expensive and more efficient, and to change the culture of our national bureaucracy away from complacency and entitlement toward initiative and empowerment. We intend to redesign, reinvent, and to reinvigorate the entire national government."
Not much to argue with in that motherhood and apple pie sampler. Except the results.
Perhaps aware of the program's scant successes, the vice president now touts the elimination of the federal budget deficit as the foremost accomplishment of REGO. While the Clinton-Gore team rightly may claim some credit for the budget surplus, surely deficit reduction was not REGO's mission. Viewed more objectively, the surplus results from a conglomeration of factors, including the end of the Cold War peace dividend, Alan Greenspan's handling of interest rates, industry deregulation efforts dating back to the days of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, the election of the budget-minded Republican Congress in 1994, and the rise of the Internet economy.
In any event, the cost savings attributable to REGO are subject to vigorous dispute. In testimony before a Senate committee in May 2000, a GAO official stated that the agency had reviewed the administration's claims that $44.3 million in savings were attributable to REGO. According to the official, GAO Associate Director J. Christopher Mihm, the agency determined that "the relationship between the [REGO] recommendations and the savings claims was not clear" and that "there was no way to substantiate the savings claimed."
Likewise, Gore has previously made, and repeated in last week's debate, a hotly contested claim-that the REGO initiative has led to a reduction of more than 300,000 positions, making the federal work force the smallest since the Kennedy administration. As Paul Light, director of the Center for Public Service at the Brookings Institution, has explained, absent cutbacks in military personnel, the government work force today would be significantly larger-not smaller-than in 1960. Light points out that, since 1960, the number of federal employees in domestic agencies has risen from 761,000 to 1.1 million.
Despite the grandiose title of Gore's initiative-Reinventing Government-by any reasonable measure its achievements have been modest. Indeed, it has failed to recommend elimination of any significant government agency or the meaningful restructuring of any major government program. Instead, it let Congress cut a few tiny agencies, such as the Administrative Conference of the United States. With an annual budget of less than $2 million, this small agency produced over the years many valuable recommendations to improve government administration, such as implementing alternative dispute resolution techniques.
To be sure, there have been some noteworthy though limited successes. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, once widely criticized, has improved substantially-both candidates praised it during the debate. In 1998, it took an average of only 8 days to get relief checks to disaster victims, down from 20 days in 1992.
Also, many agencies have made substantial progress under the REGO rubric in making government information more accessible through the Internet. Even Gov. George W. Bush concedes that "credit must go to this administration for applying Internet technology to government departments and agencies."
To take one example, a new governmentwide portal, FirstGov.com, is finally online. To take another, consider the Department of Transportation's new electronic docketing system. Neil Eisner, the DOT's assistant general counsel for regulation and enforcement and an expert on regulatory reform, told me in an interview that resulting benefits include direct cost savings in terms of fewer personnel and less office space; public access to agency documents 24 hours a day; access to documents by several people simultaneously; electronic filing of documents; the facilitating of information searches; and efficient document archival.
For his part, Gov. Bush has poked fun at the REGO initiative, charging that "they haven't reinvented government bureaucracy-they just reshuffled it." In his major speech devoted to government reform, Bush proposed a 2 percent reduction in the federal work force over eight years, with a further reduction through attrition in half the managerial positions. He claims his own "reinvention" efforts would save $88 million over five years.
Yet Bush avoided making specific recommendations concerning eliminating or consolidating agencies or departments. Instead, he suggested that Congress establish a Sunset Review Board to review every agency and program at least once every decade, and a bipartisan commission to identify pork-barrel spending projects for an up-or-down congressional vote.
No doubt, in today's environment of budget surpluses and baby boomer appeals for more government help to alleviate the angst du jour, it would take more political courage than either candidate thus far has shown to lay down with any specificity plans for streamlining government operations. Indeed, The Washington Post criticized Vice President Gore's economic blueprint for making "no mention in its 191 pages of spending programs that might be cut."
While Bush's proposals for spending on new programs are considerably more modest than Gore's, he too has failed to provide details regarding reform of existing programs. If Bush is serious about "compassionate conservatism" as a governing philosophy that implies the private sector should perform some of the social services tasks now performed by government, he should draw a more concrete link between the philosophy and a government reinvention effort.
This is not to say that during the next administration there won't be a need to initiate any new programs, or even create a new agency. Reinvention doesn't only mean cutting. But in a government with more than 150 federal agencies and commissions, there should be plenty of room to streamline and consolidate.
Government is ripe for "reinvention," especially now that we are entering the Information Age. But the next president will need to do more than just recommend that Congress establish sunset boards and anti-pork commissions. He will need to exercise leadership by recommending specific changes in governmental organization and programs and new ways of delivering services more efficiently. And then he will need to be willing to take the political heat to see his recommendations through.
Randolph J. May is a senior fellow and director of communications policy studies at the Progress & Freedom Foundation in Washington. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation.
© 2000 Legal Times. All rights reserved. This article is reprinted with permission from Legal Times.