- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 27, 2000

George W. Bush's domestic policy advisers are working on a hush-hush reform plan to address an issue that he has been virtually silent about: wasteful, inefficient federal spending.

Senior Bush campaign officials will not publicly discuss the government reform plan, which he intends to announce sometime this spring. But some of his policy advisers say it calls for using state-of-the-art computer technology, broader use of the Internet, and widespread privatization to deliver government services at less cost and with fewer federal workers.

In what insiders call "a work in progress" that could revolutionize the way antiquated, snail's-pace agencies and programs are run, the plan calls for using the same technological and downsizing reforms that U.S. businesses have used to boost productivity and deliver better products and services at a cheaper price.

Bush advisers tell me the plan will call for contracting out more government work to the private sector, far more competitive bidding of contracts, and the consolidation of redundant programs to end rampant duplication and waste.

The plan calls for cutting-edge communications technology to modernize programs and creaky delivery systems that have not been fundamentally reformed for nearly a century.

A case in point: Despite some changes in its operations, the Agriculture Department's county field offices originally were created to be no more than a day's horseback ride away from farmers. In the era of the Internet, this is a grossly inefficient system that cries out for reform.

There are at present more than 100 different job-training programs and agencies, operating at cross-purposes, with each not knowing what the other is doing. Similar wasteful practices are rife throughout the federal government.

Taxpayers pay for this inefficiency. Auditors estimate wasteful spending at between $100 billion and $200 billion a year.

In an age in which fast-paced computer chips and digital, wireless technology have cut the cost of countless products and services from computers to mobile phones to calculators the federal government remains the only sector in our society whose management and delivery systems have been largely untouched by the technological business revolution.

"The federal government has lagged behind the private sector in its use of technology to become more efficient and productive with a lot less cost," a key adviser to the Texas governor told me.

"We are going to show that we can do more with less," another adviser in Mr. Bush's inner circle said.

"Within the last 10 years, the private sector has significantly trimmed the fat out of its management operations, and that is what the government has to do. There are enormous savings to be made here," this adviser said.

The Bush proposals are being developed by a team of policy advisers headed by Stephen Goldsmith, a former mayor of Indianapolis who made a reputation for himself by privatizing municipal services and cutting local government costs.

Another key figure on this team is William Eggers, a top former analyst with the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank that specializes in privatizing government programs and services.

Much as been written lately about Mr. Bush's leftward shift toward the middle. But those who write such things don't know Bill Eggers, who once ran the Privatization Center in Los Angeles and is as far from a middle-of-the-roader as you can get.

Here's what Mr. Eggers said a few years ago when he was promoting a book he co-authored, "Revolution at the Roots," which advocates privatizing much of the government:

"Instead of asking 'Should we be doing this?' people are making things efficient that the government shouldn't be doing anyway," Mr. Eggers said.

"A lot of Republicans and conservatives are getting in office saying they will run the government like a business. That's the wrong approach," he said. "Government will never be as efficient as the private sector." That is why he thinks the government should only do things the private sector cannot do.

Instead of mandating across-the-board downsizing of federal workers, he thinks "right-sizing is more strategic." That means determining the optimum number of workers needed to efficiently operate each agency or program.

Among the government's vast array of social services, Mr. Eggers thinks "a lot of the welfare programs are not good. Government programs cannot operate as well as many of the private charities. Big government cannot practice tough love."

These are the kind of hard-core beliefs that have long been championed by think tanks such as the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation. Now Mr. Eggers and others who think along the same lines as he are hoping Mr. Bush will champion their crusade to reduce the size and cost of the federal bureaucracy.

Until now, Mr. Bush has avoided the kind of budget-cutting, waste-fighting issues that characterized the Reagan revolution of the early 1980s. He has instead preferred to keep his focus on shrinking the amount of money the government has to spend through across-the-board income tax cuts that would return more than $1 trillion in budget surpluses to taxpayers over the next decade.

The Eggers plan is aimed at giving Mr. Bush a reform blueprint for turning a fat, lethargic, outdated bureaucracy into a lean, efficient, modern, high-speed Internet government for the 21st century.

Let's hope it's announced soon. Mr. Bush cannot afford to ignore this issue much longer.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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