Reforming the Reformers
February 1, 2000
by Ryan Streeter
Every presidential campaign cycle is littered with promises by “outsiders,” many of whom have sharpened their political teeth inside the beltway, to radically alter government. John McCain, for example, prefaces every proposal with “I’m going to reform x.” Al Gore, the man who reinvented government, repeatedly uses “accountability for results,” “high standards,” and their cognates in his speeches. To be taken seriously in the nineties, a candidate must speak the language of performance. And rightly so. At nearly 18 percent of GDP, government goods and services play a substantial role in our overall economic stability. We are justified in expecting tough, market-based management in the public sector.
But do we understand performance? Since the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993, the National Partnership for Reinventing Government (NPRG), formerly the National Performance Review, boasts that it has eliminated more than 350,000 federal jobs and expunged 16,000 pages of regulations. (We are not told how many have been added.) All this, they say, amounts to more than $100 billion in savings. In a recent Public Productivity and Management article, however, Richard White remarked that by performance the NPRG means responsiveness, not efficiency. Responsiveness may mean greater customer satisfaction, but efficient government focuses on raising the quality of real outcomes while driving down the cost.
This could not be more important than in human services, where the aspirations, well-being, and lives of real people are at stake. The General Accounting Office (GAO) recently released a report on the Department of Health and Human Services’ performance plan for fiscal year 2000. The report includes the following recommendation: “To provide a clearer picture of intended performance, the plan should contain sets of performance goals as well as measures that address important dimensions of program performance. HHS’ individual agency performance plans do not consistently do this.” After six years of reinvention, the $390 billion agency has not come very far. The report comes two years after a previous GAO report recommended that HHS seriously rework its approach to attaining results. The agency, the earlier report said, was merely forcing states to comply with its thousands of regulations—hardly a performance-driven environment.
The problem with promises to reform or reinvent government is that they often translate into new rules and regulations. This may increase the time needed to fill out reporting requirements, but it does not produce real institutional change. The new performance idiom is the latest in a long line of fruitless government attempts to check itself. In the old days, it was the job of a robust federalism to keep our government from acquiring so much power that it would need to be reinvented. Only the bloated federal government of the latter half of the twentieth century could produce the irony of Nixon’s New Federalism which increased social-services spending from $55 billion to $132 billion between 1970 and 1975. Federalism was never a management theory, but within it is the concept that political orders (and nongovernmental authorities, in older versions) are best kept in balance by forcing them to compete for the time, money, and energy of the citizenry.
So beware of talk of high standards and accountability that is not accompanied by a clear strategy incorporating competition and objectively shared criteria for what constitutes a result. It will only bring on the need for new reforms a few years later.
Ryan StreeterRyan Streeter is Vice President of Civic Enterprises, LLC, a public policy development firm in Washington, DC. Streeter was a research fellow of the Welfare Policy Center at Hudson Institute from 1998-2001.