Remember "reinventing government"? That was a task assumed by Vice President Al Gore during the last administration. Gore and President Clinton hailed the results of their own efforts, asserting that more than 300,000 federal jobs had been slashed. The implication was that under Clinton-Gore, government had become leaner and more efficient.
The trouble was that nearly all of those jobs were cut from the military (271,000, according to the Office of Management and Budget), weakening the armed forces at a time when they should have been strengthened, especially in light of the terrorist threat, then and now.
President Bush proposes something far different and much better. He wants to open as many as 850,000 government jobs - half the federal workforce - to competition. Private firms will be able to bid on the work. The goal will be to increase efficiency and lower costs. One objective is to put about 15 percent of the government jobs that are not"inherently governmental" into private competition. These would include trash collection, prison operations, collecting traffic fines and other mundane chores.
In the private sector, this would be counted as a good thing and an extension of what is taught in business schools about cost-effectiveness. But in government, where unions and political power exert undue influence, cost-effectiveness often comes in second.
Unions are livid. They mostly give Democrats their votes and lots of campaign cash in exchange for big and ever-expanding government. In a jihad-like response to the president's proposal, Bobby L. Harnage Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said Bush had"declared all-out war on federal employees." This statement is likely to have as much credibility as some of those coming from soon-to-be Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, who says the president hasn't yet won the war on terror.
Most people on the outside of government, looking in, will say that when they have to contact a government agency - from the IRS to the local DMV - they would prefer to visit the dentist. On a recent visit to a Cabinet-level department I found the halls filled with people who did not appear to be working. Partially overheard conversations were about break time, vacations, sick leave and other benefits. Upon entering an office, I saw one employee doing her nails and another engaged in what appeared to be a personal phone call. There did not appear to be a working attitude, much less a working employee, in the place. My tax dollars are paying their salaries, and so I care how they are being spent.
A friend of mine recently applied for a federal job. He finished near the top of his college class with straight As. He has a strong work ethic, is honest and should be an asset to anyone, especially the federal government, which claims it wants high-quality people. He has spent more than 18 months submitting applications for available positions for which he is qualified and has received only one interview and no job offers. Maybe he is not the kind of employee the government wants, after all. Like the A student in my high school science class, maybe he would mess up"the curve." Mediocrity loves company and is the enemy of efficiency. Competent workers embarrass the mediocre by exposing their laziness and incompetence.
It is an often heard truism in Washington that it takes an average of 18 months to hire someone and far longer to fire that person. This should not be.
Just as school choice would improve education through competition, so will open bidding by private contractors for federal jobs improve the federal workforce. Government doesn't need to be reinvented, so much as it needs to be reinvigorated. President Bush's proposal should do that and open up new opportunities for people who really want to work, producing a product that can only be a lot better than some of what we have now. It will have the side political benefit of reducing union clout within the Democratic Party and freeing union members and their dues to follow their own convictions instead of those of their leaders.