Has Gore Reinvented Government?

Friday, June 16th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — Seven years after Al Gore smashed an ashtray on TV and vowed to fix an inept government, there are fewer bureaucratic rules, fewer workers to invoke them and a bit more common sense. But the federal machinery still misfires.

And there's criticism that the vice president is taking too much credit for a ``reinvention'' that even he admits isn't finished.

While most everyone can find some good in Gore's reinventing government program, nicknamed REGO, in some instances government waste and inefficiency have grown worse, an Associated Press review of audits and investigations shows.

NASA blames the loss of two Mars probes and other failures on the departure of too many experienced engineers during downsizing.

Processing benefit claims for sick veterans takes longer now than it did before the government installed modernized computers. And the Pentagon is still paying excessive prices for some parts.

Critics say REGO has focused on image instead of tackling the most troubling, entrenched problems. Federal auditors also challenge some of the touted benefits.

Gore says REGO saved $137 billion. But the auditors who scrutinized $30 billion of those savings said most couldn't be substantiated, and the program took credit for reductions that would have occurred anyway.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush has made REGO an issue in the presidential race. ``They haven't reinvented the government bureaucracy — they have simply reshuffled it,'' he charged last week.

Gore contends REGO has led to smaller government, big savings and many improvements in the way government works. He acknowledges not all of REGO's goals have been met, but says it was successful in ``changing the culture of government.''

Indeed, improvements big and small are making the bureaucracy more responsive to citizens and less stifling to workers, like:

—Letting federal workers buy office supplies at places like Wal-Mart instead of requisitioning them through a ``procurement specialist.''

—Inviting citizens to use the Internet to buy stamps, look up Census data or even apply for a patent.

—Listing Medicare in phone books under ``M,'' where people look for it, instead of buried beneath ``Health and Human Services.''

While many changes sound obvious, they were new to federal workers who weren't used to treating citizens as customers, the vice president says.

``When our reinvention effort began ... these kinds of obvious, common sense practices weren't in place and now, in many cases, they are,'' Gore told AP. ``Common sense can be quite uncommon.''

Republicans in Congress, however, see spotty progress. Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Fred Thompson says REGO led to modest improvements, ``but they're overshadowed by wildly exaggerated claims.''

Gore and President Clinton often boast that the federal work force is the smallest since the Kennedy administration, but it was the end of the Cold War — not the efficiency efforts of REGO — that prompted most of the cuts.

From its early days in 1993, when Gore promoted reinvention by smashing a government-issue ashtray on David Letterman's ``Late Show,'' the project struggled with competing promises: making government work better while reducing staff and spending.

Tossing out thousands of pages of silly rules, like the ashtray safety test Gore demonstrated, was just the start.

REGO, which has its own office and staff, helped eliminate 377,000 civilian jobs, cutting the federal work force 17 percent through buyouts and attrition. The remaining employees were urged to devise ways to do their jobs better.

But there's growing evidence the disorderly REGO downsizing left some employees overburdened.

NASA pared 6,500 federal jobs and 47,000 contract workers. But, after losing two Mars probes and suffering other failures, administrator Daniel S. Goldin admitted, ``We probably cut too tight.'' NASA is now hiring 2,000 more workers.

The Defense Department halved the work force that buys goods and services. But, the dollar amount for purchases dipped only 3 percent and large contracts requiring more scrutiny actually increased in the 1990s.

Despite eased procurement rules that boost speed, workers are falling behind and failing to sufficiently oversee some contracts, the Defense Department inspector general warned.

In one case, the Pentagon paid $76 for a 57-cent screw. Of course, that sort of thing also happened before REGO, and the Pentagon says that procurement reform is still saving billions.

At the Veterans Benefits Administration, the payroll was cut by nearly 20 percent. Needing greater efficiency, the agency's ``reinvention lab'' found a way to shrink claims processing from 26 steps to four.

But the decreased oversight left the agency vulnerable to $1.2 million worth of employee fraud, an internal review found.

So the VBA created a new office to look out for fraud and is hiring again, adding 440 workers to reduce errors and speed up claims, which actually have fallen further behind. The agency also pledges smarter computer upgrades.

There is widespread agreement within government that the downsizing was poorly planned, allowing too many front-line workers and experienced employees to take buyouts.

``You can't just cut employees randomly and think you have a better work force at the end of the day,'' Thompson, R-Tenn, said.

REGO director Morley Winograd, who came after the job cuts, concedes there was little control. ``Hindsight is always 20/20. I think we would do it a little differently today,'' Winograd said.

Labor unions complain that work once done by federal employees has been shifted to private contractors, without evidence of savings.

``No one can tell us how many contractors we have, how much they cost and whether using them has saved any money,'' said Bobby Harnage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees.

Some minority workers complain that reinvention also weakened rules that guard against racial bias in hiring and promotions. REGO ``had a devastating impact on federal government workers, particularly racial minorities,'' said a report last year from Blacks in Government. Winograd says those claims have not been documented.

To motivate the troops, Gore has given workers with good ideas more than 1,200 ``Hammer Awards'' — a framed hammer that symbolizes progress from the days when the government paid $400 for a basic tool.

But in a poll last year, only about a third of federal employees surveyed said their agency had made reinvention a priority.

Winograd shrugs off most criticisms, saying REGO can't be deterred by occasional missteps while pushing innovation.

``If you try a new system and you make a mistake and people play gotcha, you really discourage willingness to take that chance again,'' he said. ``That's what we fight against all the time.''

Donald Kettl, a University of Wisconsin professor who studies REGO, credits Gore with pushing a behind-the-times bureaucracy to leap forward, while falling short of the program's sweeping goals.

Whoever wins the White House is likely to keep modernizing, even if under a different name. Bush has his own plan to cut spending through ``leaner management'' and increased use of the Internet.

``There's no way this disappears,'' Kettl said. ``It's simply guaranteed to be a long-term legacy.''


On the Net:

Gore's reinvention initiative: http://www.npr.gov