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Trimming of Government Fat Could Risk Cutting Meat Too : Regulations: The pile of rules attacked in Gore's report was often built on past reforms. Some fear a rise in shady deals, sloppy work and cronyism.

September 08, 1993|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The government reform initiative that the White House unveiled Tuesday is based on an appealing-sounding but somewhat risky proposition: To make government more efficient, the people who run it need a freer hand to do as they see fit.

In the view of Clinton Administration reformers, government regulations have grown so burdensome that they have slowed decision-making to a snail's pace in many parts of the federal Establishment.

But scholars who have studied a half-century's debate over the issue predicted that it will be no easy matter to peel back the regulations enough to streamline government but not so much as to threaten age-old safeguards designed to eliminate the scourges of cronyism, corruption and simple stupidity in government service.

And many believe that it will be even more difficult to convince the public and scandal-fearing politicians that they should put up with occasional government malfeasance in the name of improving government efficiency.

Such decentralization "is one of the oldest, noblest goals of public administration," said Bruce L. R. Smith, a scholar of government reform at the Brookings Institution. "But it's very difficult to do."

The Administration wants to pare back the central procurement rules, which run to 1,600 pages for the civilian work force and provide full-time jobs for some 142,000 federal workers. "Rigid rules" should be replaced with "guiding principles," the White House task force recommended.

Almost all experts agree that the growth of these regulations must be reversed. Yet, despite that consensus, it is far from clear how much autonomy the public or congressional overseers are willing to give mid-level government officials to do their jobs better.

What happens, asked Smith, if rules are revised, mid-level procurement managers are suddenly given the authority to let much bigger contracts and there is a spate of publicity about cost overruns or defective goods?

"The reform will only work if the people overseeing them will stand by their employees," Smith said. "But it's much easier to throw them to the wolves."

In the report released Tuesday, the Administration's "reinventing government" task force also has called for an easing of government personnel rules that classify employees and their potential salaries in voluminous detail. "We must reform virtually the entire personnel system--recruitment, hiring, classification, promotion, pay and reward systems," the report says.

Yet if managers are given more latitude to hire whom they wish and pay them what they want, the door could be opened to some of the old cronyism and favoritism that the rules were written to replace. "You could easily slip more and more into a spoils system," said Bernard H. Ross, chairman of the department of public administration at American University. "Some of the purists are very concerned about that."

Such a relaxation also would entail thorny practical issues, such as what kind of employee grievance system would be put in place to correct injustices.

If that system is highly centralized--to ensure it would stand up to close public scrutiny--"then you're pretty much back in the same box" of tight central control, said Brookings' Smith.

Government has wrestled with the issue of decentralization in a variety of forms. Two decades ago, New York City moved to a less central school system, in part to improve its efficiency; now the city is headed in the opposite direction after complaints that decentralization gave authority to ill-equipped--and sometimes corrupt--school officials.

Federal rules that now hobble managers were often developed with the best of intentions.

Defense procurement rules grew in reaction to outrage over contractors' sales of faulty guns, rotten beef and flimsy boots to the American military. The personnel rules that managers now find so suffocating were developed to keep the host of new agencies that sprang up in World War I from outbidding each other for employees; others were designed to prevent politicians from putting friends and supporters on the civil service payrolls at inflated wages.

Some scholars warn that the very size of the federal government makes such reforms difficult.

"The successes have tended to be in smaller, more manageable and not-too-diverse units of government--usually local government," said Ross of American University. But "when you're trying to make new rules for the Department of Defense, where they're letting 60,000 contracts a day, it's infinitely more difficult."

Many who favor reform said it will be difficult to sell the idea to Americans just now, considering that political figures from various ends of the spectrum regularly characterize government workers as stubborn, ignorant and worse.

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