Al Gore tried it and failed. Ronald Reagan had some modest success when he attempted it. Even Jimmy Carter gave it a shot. Now George W. Bush is trying his hand at reforming the federal government. Let's hope he has more luck than his predecessors did. Gore tried to "Reinvent Government." Reagan's Grace Commission pledged to eliminate "waste, fraud and abuse." And Carter introduced "zero-based budgeting" for federal agencies to try to reduce the size of government. Despite their efforts, the size of the federal work force grew, but productivity didn't. Now Bush wants to cut the work force and improve productivity. Good luck.
The president's plan, announced during his weekly radio address, would create incentives for some current federal employees to take early retirement, out-source more jobs to contractors, and base pay increases on performance rather than longevity, allowing managers to reward the best workers. If enacted -- and it will not be an easy task, especially with government employee unions fighting reform every step of the way -- the Bush plan could save a bundle.
The president complained that the federal government spends $45 billion a year on computers and technology, a huge sum, but "unlike private sector companies, this large investment has not cut the government's costs or improved people's lives in any way that we can measure."
It's no wonder why. The problem isn't lack of equipment, it's the people who are expected to use it. I've worked in government and headed two federal agencies during my career and still have many friends in government. I've encountered bright, dedicated federal workers over the years -- but unfortunately, I've encountered almost as many incompetent and just plain lazy federal employees as well.
Back in the days before voicemail, I had a secretary who refused to answer the phone. She'd let it ring 10 or 12 times, lift the receiver off the cradle and drop it back down again, disconnecting the caller. And this was in the congressional liaison office of the then Department of Health, Education and Welfare. This same woman filed a grievance against me when I asked that all members of Congress receive a response to their letters within two weeks.
When I was head of the Civil Rights Commission, I had a secretary who could barely speak English, much less read or write it well. Her job was to type the annual report to Congress on the commission's activities. When I discovered that much of the typed report was gibberish -- she didn't know what she was typing, they were just sequences of letters -- I offered to send her to classes to improve her English. That offer prompted a visit from the agency's solicitor, warning me that I shouldn't even suggest such a thing and certainly could not force her to take lessons.
Another woman in the agency -- a division manager -- would invite her assistant into her office every afternoon at 3 p.m. to play "Boggle," a board game involving dice the two would play noisily until quitting time. Now, federal employees can play computer games or surf the Internet to their heart's content all day long.
I estimate that about a third of the federal employees I worked with were hard-working, another third were competent but lacked initiative, and fully one third were unable or unwilling to do their jobs. The problem is, there's almost no way under the current system to adequately reward the first group or get rid of the last.
President Bush's proposal attempts to deal with this problem, but it doesn't go nearly far enough. If we want accountability from federal employees, we've got to overhaul the entire system. It means getting rid of job protection for federal employees.
If an employee doesn't perform, there's no reason to keep him. If a program is reduced or eliminated,
the staff should be cut accordingly, not just reshuffled within the agency.
If the government could hire and fire like much of the private sector does, agencies could do with fewer employees -- and afford to compensate the best ones commensurate with their talent. But don't count on it happening anytime soon.