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Plans for a new government support past successes, opens new doors.

Earlier this week, President Clinton and Vice President Gore announced the findings and recommendations of their National Performance Review to Reinvent the federal government. Its objective is to make the national government work better and cost less. The initiative drew heavily on creative practices and approaches initiated not only in the private sector, but also in thousands of local governments across the country.

As the news story on page 1 reports, a number of critical recommendations directly affect state and local government. These include the issuing of an executive order limiting the use of unfunded mandates, streamlining the regulatory review process, defining the compliance certification process by allowing state and local governments to submit a single certification to one contact point in the federal government, and giving state and local governments the authority to make programs work better by consolidating federal grant funds that don't exceed $10 million (bottoms-up grant consolidation).

Unlike earlier efforts to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the federal government, this one engaged federal employees, those who will be most intimately involved with the implementation, as well as state and local officials who helped develop elements of the intergovernmental plan. Equally important and strikingly different from other initiatives, instead of simply meeting an endless litany of problems, the effort recognizes successes that can serve as models for change across the government.

As a nation, we have become cynical and suspicious that any effort can improve government. For almost two decades, political leaders and pundits helped create an environment bent on demeaning government and those who served in it. Comedians found the national government an easy and acceptable target for humor, reinforcing the belief that anyone involved in government at any level is either incompetent, corrupt, or lazy. In fact, there are plenty of outrageous examples in government to draw on--just as there are in every other sector of the economy. The major difference is the public is predisposed to assume the very worst in the public sector and grant the benefit of the doubt in other sectors.

Clearly, there are fundamental flaws in the way the federal government is structured, organized, and managed. Some of this is a result of our political process which by design was meant to provide checks and balances, not efficiency. Arcane personnel procedures, excessive regulations, convoluted purchasing practices -- each individual one put in place for a specific reason -- with the cumulative result being ineffective government. The need for change is real and basic. The obstacles to change by any measure are extreme.

But change is possible in even the most entrenched institutions. However, a prerequisite is a basic belief that change is indeed possible. In the case of government, this is a belief that needs to be shared both by those employed by government and those served by it, the public.

We need only look at personal experiences at the local level to appreciate that improvements, efficiencies, and cost reductions can be made when there is a clear commitment, involvement of both management and employees, and recognition and affirmation for the effort. In my judgment, there is reason to believe that the proposed program at the federal level can improve the delivery of service and reduce costs. However, it cannot and will not be a quick fix. This is an enormous institution which we both want to respond quickly and be controlled to avoid abuse. There is an inherent conflict between the desire for immediate, flexible, and non-bureaucratic responsiveness and the desire for procedures and controls to ensure equity, consistency, and fairness. I agree with the Vice President who argues that "we have good people trapped in a bad system." And in order to change the systems and the pattern of operation -- the culture of government -- "we have to change a number of things simultaneously."

At the local level, we know that by engaging our own employees in helping to address and improve services, we are far more likely to bring about constructive changes. This is precisely what the National Performance Review is doing. Critically important is the recognition that this is a long-term effort, one that will not show instantaneous results and one that is fundamentally addressing change in the "corporate culture" of government.

The basic themes are consistent with what many local governments have been doing to deal with the significant financial constraints, increased federal mandates, and citizen expectations for service improvements. It includes reducing red tape (greater discretion to agencies), looking at the citizens as customers who have a right to be served efficiently and respectfully, empowering communities (cities) to solve their own problems, and refocusing on the basics of what services are about and how most effectively to provide them. These are obviously general themes, but the report provides specifics drawn from both state and local government as well as federal agencies where these practices have been introduced.

Again, it is easy to be cynical, to assume the worst, and attribute capricious personal political motives to this effort. However, change requires not only specific action steps, but also a willingness to believe that change can occur. We can sit back, watch, and predict failure, or we can engage in a constructive manner in terms of our own interactions with federal agencies, individual elected officials, and employees with whom we work. Recognizing that improvements can be made, identifying how local government can engage constructively, and portraying this to our citizens can have an important impact on the prospects for change in the quality and cost of federal services.

Local elected officials, more than most, appreciate the importance of communicating a message as a part of a systematic initiative to implement change. That capacity, I believe, can help address the critical need for change at the national level today.
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Author:Borut, Donald J.
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Sep 13, 1993
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