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What's wrong with the Gore report.

A couple of hard truths that Gore & Co. need to face for their plan to overhaul the government to work

The Gore report on reinventing government lacks the aerated graphics of the latest Mirabella and the prose won't exactly give Bellow night sweats, but for a book on good government, reading it is hardly the drear you'd imagine. The chapters are divided helpfully, gray-boxed quotes from the likes of Emerson, Patton, and Werner von Braun pepper the text - and, most importantly, there is page after page of sound thinking about how to revamp the federal bureaucracy. The absurdities of life and work in the civil service are striking, after all, and the Gore report is a litany of right-sounding solutions, as commonsensical as they are overdue.

But by the time you get to about the middle of the document something begins to seem... off. Hard to tell what it is, really, until you get to page 68 and read this Al Gore quote:

Our bedrock premise is that ineffective government is not the fault of the people in it. Our government is full of well-intentioned, hardworking, intelligent people - managers and staff. We intend to let our workers pursue excellence.

Ah ha. That's it. The first of several problems with this report is that it is entirely predicated on a set of exceptionally cheerful assumptions about not just the millions of bureaucrats in the federal government, but about humanity itself. People are good, the report implies with each paragraph. Bureaucrats are people. Because bureaucrats are good, agencies want to do what benefits the Republic, rather than what benefits agencies. If it makes sense to streamline, bureaucrats will streamline; if they need to train, they'll train. The talents and fundamental goodness of all bureaucrats have been obscured, in this logic, by a perverse welter of regulations and a set of incentives that encourage mediocrity rather than excellence.

This isn't wrong, exactly. Regulations have hamstrung bureaucrats and there is often no margin for creative thinking for either managers or front line workers. But that's just part of the problem. The rest of the problem is that for years the quality of worker in the bureaucracy has been in what one Office of Personnel Management executive described to political scientist James Q. Wilson as a "death spiral." It's been thirty years since any president even tried to inspire citizens to join the government: The last time was when John Kennedy beckoned to "Let public service be a proud and lively career," a call which doubled the number of college graduates applying to work in the government. And the quality problem got worse in the eighties. Reagan and (to a lesser extent) Bush believed that populating the bureaucracy with underachievers was one swell way to curtail government activism. So recruiting programs were cut back, superior candidates weren't sought out, and mediocrity was accepted as the norm. Terry Cutler, an assistant to Reagan's director at OPM, captured the prevailing philosophy in a Wall Street Journal op-ed which argued that, "The government does not need top graduates, administrative offices staffed with MBAs from Wharton, or policy shops full of the best and brightest whatevers. Government's goals should not be employee excellence but employee sufficiency."

And through the seventies and eighties employee sufficiency is what we got. The Volcker Commission studied the quality of the civil service at the end of this period, and found that 90 percent of college honor students never seriously consider working in government. Pat Ingraham, a professor of government who worked on the study said, "I've talked with hundreds of line managers and administrators from practically every federal agency. And what I hear is the quality of new hires is just getting worse and worse."

The government thus stood on its head the first principle of any private sector venture - find the best people you can. Think about it. If you ran a business wouldn't you scour city and countryside for motivated, intelligent people? Wouldn't you even drive to a few campuses looking for promising upstarts? These days agencies rarely recruit newly-minted graduates and are especially scarce on the nation's top colleges. (Last year only the Department of Energy made a trip to the Ivies.) More work goes into filling scientific and technical posts, but with little hiring going on at a lot of agencies, many have stopped searching hard for high caliber people when entry level slots come open.

So how does the government find reinforcements? Most jobs are filled through what is essentially a buddy system: Bureaucrats give pals a heads up about what's available, help them navigate the bewildering application process, and tailor their candidacy to ideally match the job. Cronyism explains only part of this phenomenon. "Agencies aren't necessarily looking to hire friends, they're just looking for someone to hire fast," says Caroline Ban, an associate professor at the University of Albany and a former manager at OPM. Regulations can make hiring talent a four-month ordeal and every once in a while an unexpected hiring freeze postpones the chance to fill an opening. The rush leads to more and more buddies in government. The up-shot? Without an ally on the inside, landing a job in the government these days is just a little likelier than winning Powerball.

The problem with a government of buddies is that it tends to attract people who are just looking for steady work with good benefits, rather than folks who are actually filled with an impulse to serve the commonweal. Instead of people dedicated to issues, causes, or the president's agenda, you get those who are looking for a good wage and the perks of federal employment. One of Clinton's White House insiders recently got a reminder of how prevalent this sensibility has become when he was driven to a speaking engagement by a civil servant. You'd think the driver would use the car ride to talk about policy or the direction of the government. Nary a word on the subject. The discussion was entirely about the great deal he was getting on health care and vacation time.

The buddy system is another reason that the quality of the civil service - especially in agencies like Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, and the General Services Administration - has been plummeting for years. Since the government doesn't measure the collective competence of its workforce (it'd be hard to do, anyway), most evidence of this is anecdotal. But there's plenty of it. You need look no further than the ATF's bumbling, pre-raid vaudeville in Waco, where a group of fortysomething agents tried to pose as college students as they cased the Koresh compound - thus tipping off the Branch Davidians of an imminent attack. Three years ago, a senior official at one agency told the Monthly that $300,000 in salary - 10 percent of his office budget - went to incompetent and non-productive employees. And none of this is a secret. Back in 1988, a report by the Hudson Institute commissioned by the OPM warned of "a slowly emerging crisis of competence" in a slew of federal programs. Instead of attracting the best and the brightest, the report said, the government was getting the "best of the desperate."

The harvest of these arid years is now Clinton and Gore's. But the National Performance Review report ducks the problem and shies away from articulating a recruitment policy, perhaps because they are afraid to discuss new hires in a report that emphasizes the need to cut down the civil service. The reinventors want applicants to be able to apply directly to the agencies that interest them, rather than applying to OPM, and that's a superb idea. In a reinvented government, OPM would serve as a talent clearinghouse, making sure that the bright guy who wanted to work at Education but couldn't finds out about that job at Interior just vacated. But a vigorous recruitment campaign led by the president needs to be initiated at the same time. Unless the government finds the well-qualified, the under-qualified will keep finding it.

The report is clearer about what to do with another class of bureaucrat, the under-utilized, recommending that, in the next five years, the most delicate of mechanisms - attrition - reduce the bureaucracy by some 250,000 jobs. (It will take a bit longer than that since attrition rates aren't what they used to be. In 1983 the retirement rate was 2.5 percent and the quitting rate was 4.4 percent. In 1992 the retirement rate had dwindled to 1.5 percent and quitters were down to 3 percent.) To NPR's credit, the target of most of those cuts is middle management, an area of the bureaucracy which the Monthly has long argued needs a crash diet. (We've also warned that, though there's plenty of waste around the waist, nearly all managers do something necessary and making sure those tasks are covered is imperative.) But admitting that some workers are better than others - then making policy which accounts for the differences when it comes to downsizing - is equally crucial.

Gore might have wanted to avoid offending the powerful employees unions with this opening salvo, but you can't help but notice that soft-pedaling personnel quality also dovetails nicely with the business consultant rhetoric that suffuses the report. The NPRists often sound like a team of McKinsey associates trying to rationalize a division of Chrysler. While this yields encouraging prose about treating John Q. Public like a customer and delivering a better "product," the government/business analogy breaks down in ways that Gore seems not to want to face. If Chrysler had used the same hiring and firing techniques as the federal government over the past decade, Lee Iaccoca would be known as one of capitalism's great nitwits and the Le Baron would be outperformed by the Yugo.

Personnel Appeal

Keep in mind that what is being proposed here not only lacks blinding originality (a fact duly noted by the report's detractors), but some variations of it have been proposed before. Back in 1987, in a rare spasm of Reagan-era reform, the OPM drafted the endearingly-titled Civil Service Simplification Act. The law sought a lot of what is most enticing about NPR: expanded discretion for managers to hire and grant performance-based pay raises. (One key difference is that the bill was much bolder than NPR about allowing managers to fire.) The plan was to allow agencies to voluntarily and gradually adopt the same rules found in the private sector.

What happened when the bill got to Congress? "It was dead on arrival," says Constance Horner, then director of OPM. Two of the major players strongly resisted the reforms. For the federal labor unions, says Homer, "Strengthening the discretion of managers reduces the role of labor. If you have fewer rules, there are fewer rules that can be grieved." The unions already feel weak enough; the executive order which first recognized them prohibits them from bargaining over pay and consequently they cling to what powers they do have - like appealing disciplinary actions. The unions also have more than a little sway with Congress: All senators and a good many representatives have thousands of excitable federal employees in their home districts.

Given what happened in 1987, you might expect the employee unions to be gearing up to bludgeon any employee reform bill that emerges. The NPR drafters, however, traded edge for inclusion, toning down language in order to minimize union opposition. (Earlier drafts reportedly spoke tougher truths.) Union leaders were consulted along the way and promised a prominent hand in drafting the civil service's new rules in a series of union/management meetings in something called the National Partnership Council. Still, the report's recommendations, if all adopted, would proscribe labor's power. Why? Because the goal is to slim down managerial ranks so that there is one manager for every 15 workers instead of one for every seven - the creaking General Services Administration has one manager for every four front-liners - and to have a functioning workforce with that ratio, you have to expand the authority of managers. Yet unions are sounding surprisingly upbeat. "We think this is a good direction for the government to go in," says John Sturdivant, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. "It's a good report."

Why would unions back ideas they savaged in '87? Theories range from the unlikely (they were shmoozed), to the perfidious (Clinton has promised to allow them to bargain over pay some time in the future). Of course, it's easy for unions - and everybody else - to applaud freeing workers from stupid regulations. But that's like being for clean water. The question is whether the smiles will last when it comes time to reconfigure the personnel laws that are so much of the problem.

Consider disciplinary action. The NPR report rightly seeks to reduce the appeals process. Union leaders see that as the wrong focus. "The real issue," says Robert Tobias, head of the National Treasury Employees Union, "is that federal managers don't step up to the issue of poor performance in a clear way."

That's often true. Many people in the managerial ranks are there because their bosses promoted them to keep them around. These folks don't really manage and hate holding others accountable for performance. But the rules don't help; currently, it takes an iron gut to fire a bureaucrat. The process goes like this: 1) the manager must painstakingly document poor performance or misconduct, 2) the agency then must prove a negative effect on efficiency or on others, 3) employees must be informed of the proposed firing, 4) employees can appeal the matter to the Merit Systems Protection Board and get a ruling from a judge, 5) if they lose, employees can seek a grievance through a union arbitrator or appeal to the full board, 6) if they lose they can appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals. The years it takes to actually fire workers can easily outstrip the years it took them to demonstrate incompetence.

What is NPR's suggested reform for this quagmire? It reduces the required time for notice of termination from 30 to 15 days. In other words, the endless appeals process remains - it just gets started a little earlier.

Though NPR is skittish about how to get and keep the right workforce, it's bold on an all-too-neglected topic: holding bureaucrats accountable for performance. The problem is that most of what bureaucrats do doesn't directly affect any of us, so there's no way to tell whether a given job is being done right. And often it's hard to figure out who is to blame when things go wrong. Note that back when your local Congressman was known to have a voice in the selection of the local postmaster, the mail was delivered twice a day, sometimes more. Performance was obvious to everyone - people had daily reminders about the post office's efficiency delivered right to the door. Accountability was taken care of too - politicians knew that if they didn't get good people to run the system, they could be voted out of office.

The NPR report has some good ideas about increasing accountability by measuring outcomes and clarifying the objectives of federal programs. The report also spends a lot of energy damning the "thicket of rules and regulations" with their "layer upon layer of additional oversight." The government's approach to oversight takes some hard knocks - and deserves some. Too much of what's now fobbed off as quality control is actually ritualistic exercises in butt-covering: Managers making sure that forms have been filed and boxes checked off. When the point is simply to give the box-checker deniability should disaster strike, there will be more box-checking than necessary and most of it won't produce any good.

Audits aren't bad in themselves; the government just doesn't know how to perform them to any positive effect. What's needed is a distinction between evaluations that waste time and annoy, and those that lead to better work. The key questions, and the questions that most government audits never bother to ask are: Is the program's job worth doing and is it doing that job well? Instead of addressing those questions, most of what now passes for government oversight is niggling, and often it shines the light in the wrong place. Usually, when the government sets out to measure something, it measures the wrong thing.

For instance, when the IRS was asked to come up with a performance standard for their agents it decided to make the number of audits completed their benchmark. Sounds pretty good, doesn't it? But what happened is that agents started to frisk people eking out a middle-class living who could be audited in less than 27 minutes in order to fill their required quota. That let the millionaires off the hook because they tend to be more time consuming. But millionaires also tend to cough up real dough if they are cheating on their taxes. IRS agents were being encouraged to go for the wrong kind of quantity; they should have been producing cash, not a list that shows they have been working. The trick is to make the evaluation criteria have something to do with the desired end result.


Government audits are also routine, which makes them far less useful. If you're at the Department of Education and you know that your work will be appraised on the 15th of every month, you've got a pretty good reason to slack off for a few days after audit time passes. The better idea, used to grand effect by the IRS from the thirties until the sixties, is to audit randomly, truly and fairly. The agency saw record high compliance figures back when tax-evaders were convinced that a visit from an agent was within the realm of possibility anytime. People knew that there was only a tiny chance they'd ever feel the hot breath of the IRS on their neck, but that slender possibility was enough to make a lot of people think long and hard before taking liberties. Now the government has got matters upside down: audits need to be smart and random, not mindless and regular.

But the major problem is that most evaluation now is entirely numbers oriented - how many Xs are making how many Ys. This rarely yields revealing pictures of what is actually happening to a given program. The guy at Commerce, for instance, who's supposed to oversee an A.I.D. program in Honduras will probably just check the books and make sure that all the money is being spent and all the materials are being delivered, rather than conversing with someone who is administering the program to find out if it is doing any good.

To get useful facts you need auditors to actually talk to people. It's simple for the guy at Commerce to tell anyone who asks, "Oh yes, the program is going great, all the money is being spent and all the material is being delivered." But if you want to find out if he knows what good the program is doing, you'll have to grill him in much the same way that adept reporters grill their sources. If anyone had bothered to interview mid-level bank inspectors and regulators in the early eighties, they would have heard that inflated real estate appraisals were a time bomb that was going to result in the fiscal meltdown of a lot of savings and loans institutions. You can't get this information by double-checking somebody's math; you have to speak to a real live person.

More interview-style auditing would help the government's perennial communication problem, creating a flow of information about programs from lower echelons, where they are implemented, to higher echelons, where they are imagined and made into law. This may sound like a mind-glazingly academic subject, enough to make even good government types drowsy, but the implications of not moving information around correctly aren't dull - in fact, they're often disastrous. Too often, that new mining regulation, for instance, will leave Washington and no one in town will ever hear or think about it again - until a mine collapses. Only then will it become obvious that something went terribly wrong when that regulation left the capital; it wasn't ever implemented, or it was implemented incorrectly. Usually in these instances, the person who could have told anyone that disaster was imminent isn't consulted. (Remember, what can't be easily quantified, usually doesn't get examined.)


Just as commonly, the person who knows about potential disasters speaks up and is ignored. That happens because in any given chain of command, there will be a link or two more interested in pretending that all is well than in hearing the truth. When someone at the bottom warns of the danger of a fire it frequently means embarrassment for someone above, and often superiors don't want to hear about the possible damage. Generally, word gets through only after something goes really wrong or someone blows the whistle. Last month in New York, for instance, a commission convened to hear tales of police corruption the likes of which haven't been news since Serpico was a household word. Why, the commission staff wanted to know, weren't suspicious cases pursued more vigorously? "A message went out into the field," explained Daniel F. Sullivan, a former top cop, "that maybe we shouldn't be so aggressive because the department doesn't want bad press."

The government needs interview-auditors everywhere, and a delta force of them should be deployed at the Office of Management and Budget, the agency which acts as the executive branch's eyes on the government and assesses agencies' budgets. Right now, the executive sends out 3 or 4 OMB employees to appraise an agency's budget request. The agency has a few hundred budget specialists who excel at withholding the truth from OMB. This isn't an even match. Agencies can cook the books gumbo-style and administrations are prevented from finding out whether programs are working. OMB is staffed with 200 budget examiners; nearly all of them are bright people, but few have any training or interest in discussing programs with front-line administrators. What the OMB desperately needs is an additional 400 or so examiners who have the interviewing skills of a good investigative reporter and whose mission is to listen rather than simply calculate. Gore and Clinton may have been nervous about suggesting additional hires, given that much of the report is about the need to cut bloat. But cutting bloat is exactly the argument for giving OMB enough people to figure out what is working and what is a waste of money.

All of this may seem stinting coming from a magazine which has trumpeted many of the themes in the NPR report for more years than we care to remember. But it is precisely our enthusiasm for the bulk of the report that inspires us to offer these ideas. It's easy to rail against over-regulated ash trays and it makes for great television. But if the administration is serious about getting rid of absurd regulations and dead-wood jobs it should be equally serious about getting rid of deadwood people and holding workers accountable in effective ways. Gore and Clinton have a historic opportunity and we hope they take it, but without the right kind of evaluation - and the right kind of people - the government can't be reinvented.
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Title Annotation:poor quality of civil service
Author:Segal, David
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Nov 1, 1993
Previous Article:Hoarding the health.
Next Article:Down and out.

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