- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 4, 2000

When Vice President Al Gore unveiled the National Performance Review (NPR) with great fanfare in September 1993, he promised that his "reinventing government" program would make Washington "work better and cost less."
Today, after nearly seven years of perfecting the art of recycling paperclips, there is simply too much evidence to deny the federal government now works worse, and costs more: Government spending has escalated to record levels; half of all federal agencies cannot produce auditable books; serious mismanagement continues to plague most federal programs; redundancy and duplication abounds; outmoded programs have become nearly immortal; and, government assets continue to crumble into disrepair.
The bottom line is that "Reinventing Government" has failed to cure the widespread cancer of waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement that is crippling the federal government.
These problems persist because the administration has been too caught up in tinkering with the process of government, rather than engaging in a serious effort to address the substance of what government should or should not do. As a result, they have wasted enormous amounts of resources on process-oriented, pseudo-reforms that may make the bureaucracy work better for bureaucrats (or make good photo-ops), but have little substantive impact either on the functioning of federal programs or on their cost to taxpayers.
The renowned management expert Peter Drucker once described the trivial nature of "reinventing government" in this way:
"In any institution other than the federal government, the changes being trumpeted as reinventions would not even be announced, except perhaps on the bulletin board in the hallway. They are the kinds of things a hospital expects floor nurses to do on their own; that a bank manager expects branch managers to do on their own; that even a poorly run manufacturer expects supervisors to do on their own without getting much praise, let alone any extra rewards."
A classic example of this is the "Plain English" award given by Al Gore to an Agriculture Department employee in 1998 for rewriting the USDA instructions for cooking a Thanksgiving turkey. Remarkably, no one on the vice president's staff, and no one in the bureaucracy, asked why the government is spending precious tax dollars to write directions for cooking turkeys when Americans have successfully cooked turkeys since the first Thanksgiving more than 300 years ago.
But the most serious shortcoming of "Reinventing Government" is that it has failed to get federal agencies to do even the most basic function account for how they spend the taxpayers' money.
As proof, we need look no further than the most recent financial statements of the federal government. In March, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) reported: "Because of the serious deficiencies in the government's systems, recordkeeping, documentation, financial reporting, and controls, amounts reported in the U.S. government's financial statements and related notes may not provide a reliable source of information for decision-making by the government or the public."
In other words, the federal government which will spend more this year than the combined economies of Canada, China and Mexico has more questionable accounting practices than most of today's high-flying dot.com companies.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg. A recent oversight report by the House Budget Committee documented a staggering amount of waste, fraud, abuse, redundancy and obsolescence throughout the federal government. For example:
The government made $19.1 billion in improper payments in 1998.
The Defense Department had to make $1.7 trillion in "unsupported adjustments" to prepare last year's financial statements.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development has been on GAO's "high risk" list since 1994.
Ten of the 14 programs first identified as "high risk" in 1990, were still on GAO's list last year.
Fifteen programs have been added to the "high risk" list since 1993.
The Commerce Department shares missions with 71 other federal departments and agencies.
And Washington spends roughly $100 billion a year on 788 federal education programs.
Despite these failings, President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore continue trumpeting the fact that the "government" as measured by the number of civilian workers is now the smallest it has been in more than 30 years. But it is very misleading to equate the number of government workers with the size, scope and efficiency of the federal government.
While it is true the administration has reduced the federal workforce by roughly 330,000 civilian workers since 1993, they did this without eliminating one government program. In fact, there are dozens more programs today than before the administration began reinventing.
Let us not forget, since 1993, federal spending has increased by roughly $390 billion, or 28 percent. So, in some perverse way, I suppose it is possible for Mr. Gore to claim the government has become more "efficient" since it is now spending more money that ever before, but with fewer government employees ($653,549 per-worker in 1993, compared to $988,220 per worker today).
Surely this is not what people imagine when they think of "smaller" government. The American people do not want obsolete and redundant programs to waste their tax dollars more efficiently. They want value for their money, and that can only come from making tough choices about what the government should and should not do with their tax dollars.
Public relations stunts such as Al Gore breaking ashtrays on the "Late Show" with David Letterman and handing out awards for turkey recipes are not a substitute for accountability.
The only true way to make government work better and cost less is to first challenge the substance of what the government should and should not do, and then demand the same standard of accountability from federal officials as is demanded from their private-sector counterparts. The American taxpayer deserves no less.

Scott Hodge is director of tax and budget policy at Citizens for a Sound Economy.

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