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September 1998 - Volume 30 Issue 9


Reinvention Lite
Why Al Gore still has a long way to go

by Robert Worth

"Modeling the office of the future": The office of Al Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government.
On April 30, 1998, a woman named Maureen O'Dwyer testified before the Senate Finance Committee along with six other current and former Internal Revenue Service employees. The press, weary after months of blockbuster hearings on abused taxpayers, didn't pay much attention. After all, the House and Senate were already writing legislation to make the IRS more user-friendly. But Maureen's story wasn't the usual tale of rude or threatening auditors. Instead, she told how her manager had ignored one company's $24 million tax debt because he wanted to close the case quickly so as to collect a $2,000 productivity bonus. Other witnesses told similar stories of IRS auditors who "zeroed out" multimillion-dollar tax bills because they didn't want to spend the time, or to curry favor with corporations that might offer them jobs. In short, the hearings showed that the IRS wasn't just suffering from rudeness. It had lost track of its most basic mission as an agency, it had failed to monitor the performance of its agents, and it was retaining plenty of people who should have been fired long before.

The IRS wasn't alone. In July, the Clinton administration declared confidently that our nation's nursing homes were in fine shape; only 1 percent suffered any serious health or safety problems. Then the General Accounting Office released the results of an investigation charging that one in three nursing homes in California - a state with a better enforcement reputation than most - suffered from "serious or life-threatening problems." The GAO described hallways that reek of urine and feces, and aging patients lying neglected on their beds, half dead from hunger and thirst, their bedsores festering until they become gaping, infected wounds. One woman described how her mother was both beaten and neglected for years, and that she "always seemed to be begging for food or water" in the three nursing homes where she stayed until she died suspiciously earlier this year.

What have Al Gore and his team of "reinventing government" experts done about problems like these? "We have expanded and improved service hours and phone support" at the IRS, declared Gore proudly in late July, along with a few other measures "focused on improving customer service." Magnify those comments across the federal government and you'll see far too much of what Gore has achieved since Clinton handed him the task of reinvention in early 1993. To be sure, making government a little nicer and more accessible to the average citizen is a desirable reform. And there's no doubt that some of Gore's other changes will save time and money. He's updated the government's information technology, improved its procurement policies, and trimmed some unnecessary regulations. He's also taken a thick slice out of the federal workforce - 351,000 at last count since he started in 1993.

What Gore doesn't seem to understand is that these changes, while laudable, don't get to the root of America's shrunken faith in government. Serious reform starts with taking a fresh look at what government agencies should be doing in the first place, then asking how well they're doing it and who they need for the job. The IRS reform bill, which Clinton recently signed, is a step in the right direction. But improving "customer service" - the heart of the bill - won't change the fact that the agency is still failing at its central duty: An estimated $195 billion in taxes go uncollected every year. Nor has Gore addressed the fact that many of the problems at the IRS - and throughout the federal bureaucracy - stem from its inability to fire corrupt and incompetent employees. Tackling this personnel problem should be at the heart of reinvention, but so far Gore's team has been content to simply let the government get smaller by offering workers a chunk of cash to leave early, regardless of whether they're truants or geniuses. As a result, according to the government observers and federal managers I spoke with, too many of the best people left, and too many bench-warmers stuck around. The government got smaller without getting any smarter. Finally, the nursing-home scandals point to a third major area for reform: performance. Reinvention won't get very far until the government starts not only re-examining its mission, but paying more attention to how it's being carried out - in this case, by keeping closer tabs on the federal and state regulators who enforce its laws.

Overhauling the government's mission, performance, and personnel is no easy task. But if you don't want to see your parents starving to death in a nursing home or lose your life savings to a corrupt IRS auditor, you should give a damn about the fact that Gore doesn't seem to be taking it on.

Mission Improbable

Reinvention is not for the fainthearted. Anyone who wants to take a fresh look at the mission of any particular agency has to be willing to dead-lift the federal bureaucracy and the unions that support it, as well as a staggering array of special interest groups that profit from keeping the system in its present state, and the congressmen who depend on those groups for money and political support.

Let's start with the bureaucracy. Remember the Rural Electrification Administration? As you may recall from high school, the REA was one of the nobler examples of government's power to help people back in the 1930s, when FDR charged it with providing electricity (and later, phone service) to rural Americans. Five decades later, that worthy goal had been achieved, but the program lumbered on, subsidizing companies that provided power to resorts like Hilton Head, Aspen, and Vail, and making loans to enormous telephone holding companies. Why? Because the REA's bureaucracy had become a self-justifying enterprise, and no one stopped to think about its original mission. The REA may be a particularly flagrant case of unnecessary bureaucracy, but the same tendency plagues agencies that do - or rather, should - have an important mission to carry out. For decades, Forest Service officials who want to put a higher priority on maintaining forest health have found themselves under attack from within the agency, because blindly cutting more timber meant bigger budgets and more jobs.

Reformers at these agencies also found themselves under attack from the outside. As the REA drifted into corporate welfare, the power and phone companies it subsidized saw what a good gig they had, and began lobbying their congressmen and donating PAC money to make sure they didn't lose their windfall from Uncle Sam. The congressmen, grateful and eager to keep the campaign cash flowing, mastered the REA's arcane regulations and became its expert defenders. The same thing happens at the Forest Service: Congressmen who are dependent on the timber industry for PAC money and political support put pressure on the agency to keep cutting timber, no matter how much that may conflict with the higher public good of maintaining healthy forests.

Of course, not all civil servants want to go along with this corrupt cycle, even if they stand to benefit. But those who don't, recognizing that congressional and bureaucratic inertia, the unions, and public ignorance are all working against them, don't usually bother to raise a stir. Instead, they stay quiet, hoping that no one will notice the small improvements they've made. Their only other option, after all, is to turn to the press, in the hopes of igniting some public outrage. And that seldom works, because far too often editors prefer to devote their political coverage to juicier and higher-profile stories like Clinton's latest vacation or Monica Lewinsky's dress. So no one hears the cry, and nothing changes.

If the press would peer into the darkness of the executive branch and dramatize its unsung heroes on a regular basis, reform might not be so rare. If you doubt that such heroes exist, consider the amazing story of one federal agency that turned itself around in record time, without any help from Al Gore. Just over five years ago the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is responsible for organizing and assisting in relief efforts to victims of earthquakes, fires, floods, and other natural or unnatural disasters, was widely considered the worst of all federal agencies. Sen. Ernest Hollings dubbed it "the sorriest bunch of jackasses I've ever seen in my life" when it bungled relief efforts after Hurricane Hugo in 1989. When the California earthquake hit later that year, FEMA's medical coordinator left for vacation the next day - because he had bought nonrefundable tickets. The agency's incompetence was legendary, and its effects on helpless disaster victims could not have been clearer. By the time James Lee Witt became the agency's new director in 1993, many disaster specialists considered it beyond hope, and Rep. Pete Stark of California had introduced a bill to abolish it.

Five years later, nearly all of FEMA's former critics hail it as a first-rate agency. In 16 recent surveys of disaster victims, more than 80 percent of respondents approved of the way the agency was doing its job. "Simply put, there is a tremendous difference in FEMA today," said Florida's director of emergency management last year. What happened?

John Kamensky, the deputy director of Gore's reinvention team, says it was James Lee Witt's leadership that did the trick. That's certainly part of it; choosing the right people to run an agency is the first step to making it work. Amazing as it sounds, James Lee Witt was the first FEMA director with real experience in disaster management - he had served as Arkansas' state emergency management director. Clinton hasn't always made his appointments so well. Think, for instance, of the perk-loving Mike Espy, the globe-trotting Hazel O'Leary, and Federico "Valujet is safe" Pena. If Gore is smart, he'll recognize that competence is what matters when you're delegating authority, not loyalty to friends and campaign donors or filling ethnic and gender quotas.

But Witt's personal leadership isn't the whole story. Here's how Witt describes what he did: "It is absolutely critical that you look at your role and mission, and redefine that role and mission to what you feel is important for that agency to be responsible for." Specifically, Witt saw that the agency's ability to respond to natural disasters like Hurricane Andrew was hampered by its prior commitment to spending half its budget on preparations for a massive nuclear attack. When it did get around to disasters, the agency's priorities were still seriously misguided. It was set up to provide federal loans and grants to disaster areas, and it could not deliver or even prepare emergency aid until a state governor requested it.

Once Witt clarified the agency's goals by moving it out of the nuclear war business and into natural disasters, he conducted a top-to-bottom review of the agency's personnel and resources. Here Witt benefited from FEMA's relatively high proportion of political appointees, which allowed him to replace a lot of the incompetents with experienced professionals. He wrote a strategic plan to bring the agency into line with its mission, and he was careful to include his managers: "It made them feel part of the reorganization, rather than like someone cramming it down their throats." He did the same thing in Congress, meeting with all the chairs of the 20 congressional committees that had an interest in the agency.

Lab Tests

What have Gore and his team done to encourage other agencies to follow FEMA's example? Essentially, they've done what idealistic government workers have so often done in the past: kept their heads down and hoped that no one would notice their good deeds. Instead of challenging the system out in the open, Gore's team has tried to encourage individual programs and offices scattered throughout the government to do so by designating them "reinvention labs," and inviting them to find less burdensome and more effective ways of doing their work. The lab strategy, which grew out of a 1980s Defense Department experiment, "has been consciously structured to avoid hierarchy," says Elaine Kamarck, who directed Gore's reinvention effort from its inception until last year. The idea is to wage guerilla warfare out in the rice paddies, with the hope that a thousand small victories against the bureaucracy will eventually bring it crashing to the ground. And it must be said, there are some fascinating and inspiring stories coming out of the labs. "It's really the front line of reinvention," says Don Kettl, the director of the Brookings Institution's Center for Public Management and the dean of reinvention scholars.

Consider, for instance, the New York office of the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), which was the first reinvention lab to win one of Gore's "Hammer" awards for success at reinvention in March 1994, and has since won two more. When Joe Thompson became director of the New York regional office in 1990 he was already determined to reform the way benefits and pensions were handled. It's not hard to see why. When a veteran called to ask about his claim, he spoke to a counselor in the Veterans Services Division. But claims were handled by the Adjudication Division, which, in the New York office, was three floors above. So the counselor would have to walk up, get the file, and then struggle to make sense of it, since he or she generally hadn't seen it before. When the veteran called again, he would often get a different counselor, who would go through the process all over again. The office employed 18 full-time "searchers" whose sole job was looking for lost folders. When the claim was finally processed, it passed from one examiner to the next, each of them performing just one of 26 separate steps. (Claims letters would go from a mail clerk to a correspondence clerk to a development clerk and finally to a claims examiner before any real work was even started on it.) This mindless slow-dance, which was standard practice in all of the VBA's 60 regional offices, "frequently infuriated our customers and sucked the life out of our employees," says Thompson.

So he decided to change it. Like James Lee Witt, Thompson started by rethinking the mission of his organization. "He always had one thing in mind," one manager told me, "what's best for the veteran. No one else had focused in like that." He conducted surveys of veterans, and their answers helped to point the way. Starting in 1992, Thompson merged the jobs of counselor and adjudicator into a single job, case manager. Each veteran's claim was now handled from start to finish by one person. He also radically reorganized the office hierarchy and made a variety of administrative changes. The results are clear: The claims process now works faster and much more efficiently. Five years ago veterans who showed up in person might have to wait hours; now no one waits more than a few minutes. The phone system, which was virtually impenetrable just a few years ago, is now a model of efficiency. Surveys show that veterans are much happier with the new system on all counts, and every employee I spoke with seemed proud to have been part of it. Like FEMA, the New York VBA office is a case study in successful reinvention: They had the right man, they rethought their mission, and they focused on improving their performance.

But the higher-ups at VA headquarters in D.C. didn't like Thompson's reforms at all, and he told me he had to fight "many battles" to preserve them. This has been true elsewhere, too: In its one major report on the labs, published in March 1996, the General Accounting Office quoted lab managers who had met with "staggering resistance" and even "payback" from managers who felt their authority was being usurped. The only real weapon the labs possess against bureaucratic inertia is the regulatory waiver, which frees them (temporarily) from agency rules so that they can try to find more efficient ways of doing business. The GAO found that 60 percent of the labs had not even sought waivers from regulations, and that 50 percent of those who tried reported trouble getting them. A report to Congress on the Veterans Administration last year declared that "many key officials do not believe they have the power to achieve change. One aspect of this is fear of offending powerful political interests."

These interests exist in every agency, because upper-level bureaucrats know that real change could mean the end of their job. At last year's IRS hearings, one agent described how she had been rewarded for challenging her office's corrupt business practices: She was sent on armed raids in Tennessee, even though she was 60 years old, and she was the only one not issued a flak jacket. Another agent voiced her concerns about harassment in her office to her congressman, and when her IRS superiors found out about it they went to the congressman themselves - not to reassure him but because they hoped to find information that would help them fire her.

Fighting back against this kind of deeply rooted resistance requires strong support from the top, and thus far Gore has not supplied it. "Every year the NPR [the National Partnership for Reinventing Government] hosts a conference called the Reinvention Roundtable, and the number one plea from managers who come to these things is: Get your own political appointees on board," says David Osborne, co-author of Reinventing Government and one of the authors of the initial Gore Report in 1993. A recent study by the Merit Systems Protection Board confirms Osborne's impression: "Government-wide, only 37 percent of our respondents said their organization had made NPR goals an important priority." Even where the labs have had their greatest successes, change has been slow and piecemeal. Although Joe Thompson has been promoted to permanent undersecretary for benefits at the Veterans Administration national headquarters in Washington, and he is trying to implement his reforms in the rest of the Veterans Benefits Administration's 60 regional offices, he hasn't yet succeeded. Nationally, the VBA is still using the same assembly-line system Thompson worked so hard to dismantle. "The organizational structure has remained basically unchanged since the end of World War II," said an internal agency report issued last year.

In fact, Gore often appears to have descended on the labs with a "Hammer" award - his token of a successful reinvention - and forgotten all about them. Consider, for instance, the fate of just one exemplary reform at the Department of Agriculture, where a group of claims officers focused on what happens when a truck owned by the USDA backs up and crushes somebody's new Nissan like a bug. It may sound like an outlandish question if you live in Manhattan, but the claims officers say it happens all the time. What would you do if it were your car? Well, you'd file what's called a "tort claim." The local claims officers would review the case, and then send it on to the regional general counsel's office, which would conduct its own separate review. If the general counsel concurred with the regional office's judgment, the claim would then proceed to the regional treasury office, which would conduct its own review. Finally, you'd receive a check, if you hadn't already been arrested for taking violent revenge on government property. Debbie Redpath, a claims officer at the USDA's Minnesota Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) office, told me that it often used to take eight months for claims to go through. "These were often people who were living hand to mouth," she adds, "and the process put them out of pocket for repairs."

So Debbie and her fellow claims officers decided to change things. They pointed out that the general counsel and Treasury agreed with their own initial judgments on the claims 98 to 99 percent of the time. So they applied for authority to adjudicate claims of $2,500 or less (which constituted 76 percent of their caseload last year) by themselves. "Now we can get a claim in the morning and put a check in the mail by afternoon." In short, Debbie and her fellow claims officers are proof that the government can't do its job without smart, imaginative workers at the front lines as well as at the top.

But what about the follow-up? Shouldn't Gore's reinventors be spreading the word and working hard to make sure that the APHIS reforms get applied throughout the government? "You would think they would," Debbie Redpath told me, "but I don't know if we've received any inquiries." She thought about it a minute, and said yes - someone from the Forest Service claims division had called. She gave me the name. I called the Forest Service officer, who told me she had read about Debbie and APHIS in a magazine (not one of Gore's publications). She said the Forest Service claims adjudication procedure is even more complex than the old one at APHIS. She'd like to change it, she said, especially because she works in a reinvention lab too. But she has not gotten anywhere so far.

Like the rest of the government, workers such as Debbie Redpath are swimming against the current of a bureaucratic culture that strongly discourages innovation. Until that changes, the "guerilla warfare" principle behind the labs isn't likely to succeed. In its 1996 report on the reinvention labs, the General Accounting Office concluded that their value "will only be realized when lab efforts proven to be effective spread beyond the lab sites." So far, there's little evidence that this is happening.

The Personnel Touch

And it isn't likely to happen until Gore starts finding ways to bring gifted people into all levels of government - people like James Lee Witt at the top of the agency, Joe Thompson in the regional offices, and Debbie Redpath on the front lines. As Sen. John Glenn put it during a hearing on reinvention efforts in 1992, "We can give them some organizational tools, and we can give them all the studies and pilot projects you want, but until we get some really good people in here, we aren't going to solve this problem."

What's really tragic about Gore's failure to make any headway on this front is that the need for better workers has never been greater, and the press - bored with Gore's jargon-rich presentations and hung up on Monicagate - has utterly ignored it. Think about it: There are now more people on the verge of retirement in the government than ever before, and the quality of new hires is still going downhill. "When we asked supervisors to tell us to what extent the quality of applicants had worsened or improved in the past three years," concluded a 1998 study by the Merit Systems Protection Board, "we found that their assessment of applicant quality had fallen for just about every type of job category." As Seth Grossman points out in this issue, some agencies can't even answer phone calls from prospective applicants. And the failings of the current workforce have become legendary. One Defense Department official failed to show up for work for seven straight months, and successfully challenged an effort to fire him on the grounds that his boss made him nervous and gave him a "stress disorder." Another federal worker, fired for truancy, kept his case bouncing from one appeal to another for over 12 years. As one VA official told me, his union is "a refuge where you can go if you don't want to do any work. It's a black hole." For the most part, supervisors don't even try to fire incompetent or lazy employees. Under these circumstances, having a lot of political appointees who can be replaced at will, as James Lee Witt did at FEMA, is a distinct advantage.

But incompetence and stubborn unions aren't the only problems. One former government official told me he used to work alongside three men who spent two-thirds of their time communicating with each other. "What seemed to make sense was to combine their work into one job," he added. Clearly, Gore needs to start doing what Joe Thompson did at the New York VBA office: looking at the work that needs to be done and consolidating jobs. So far, however, Gore's cutbacks in the federal workforce have not taken such inefficiencies into account. "Some of my best people have left," one manager at Joe Thompson's former office in New York told me. Meanwhile, his claims division is seriously overworked. And he still can't fire his problem employees.

One way to tackle what the government tactfully calls its "poor performer" problem would be to hire a substantial number, perhaps half, of all new people on a limited term basis - say two-and-a-half or five years. These contracts could be renewed at the end of the term, but they could also be dropped painlessly without the current interminable appeals process. That would limber up the workforce and get rid of some of the deadwood. Retaining tenure for some employees would prevent the government from becoming so transient that it had no institutional memory. In a way, it's odd that this solution (which this magazine has long advocated) shouldn't have occurred to Gore before, since his sister Nancy worked in the one government office that has used limited-term appointments: the Peace Corps. It's been successful there, and it's also been a central part of the wholesale public sector reforms in New Zealand, which are widely acknowledged to have improved government performance, and which were part of the basis for Gore's reforms in 1993. The Defense Department is about to launch an experimental program along the same lines, hiring a substantial number of new employees under one- and five-year contracts instead of labeling them "permanent" from the start. If Gore wants reinvention to last, he'll encourage other agencies to follow suit.

Embracing reforms like these isn't easy, and it would take a big bite out of the union campaign donations Gore is counting on in the 2000 election. But the benefits could mean a lot more to the rest of us than anything he's done so far. Cutting costs and trimming regulations are fine things, but the difference between good government workers and inept ones is the difference between life and death. This past July an air traffic controller who had twice tested positive for drugs was reinstated by the Federal Labor Relations Authority, and she wasn't even told to go into rehab. Think about that the next time you fasten your seat belt, and ask yourself whether reinventing government is really so dull after all.

~Robert Worth


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