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National Perspective | GOVERNMENT

Early Efforts at 'Reinventing' Agencies May Need Tinkering

January 01, 1998|ART PINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Agriculture Department has set a goal of resolving the snafu expected to derail its computers when the calendar reaches 2000--but it does not expect to have its plan ready until 2002.

The Environmental Protection Agency plans to measure its success in protecting wetlands on the basis of how many acres of land it can set aside as federal sanctuaries each year--with virtually no consideration of how many of those parcels may actually be at risk.

The Labor Department wants to bolster the security of the nation's pension funds, but it intends to calculate its success based on how many violators it can haul into court, rather than on how much it can actually cut back on abuse.

If all this makes you want to roll your eyes and say, "Yep, it sure sounds like the same old federal government," then guess again. This time, it's the reinvented government that is being worked toward by President Clinton and the Republican-led Congress.

When Clinton ran for the presidency in 1992, he and his running mate, then-Sen. Al Gore (D-Tenn.), vowed to "reinvent government"--that is, to overhaul every department and agency and make it come up with specific long-term goals against which its progress could be judged.

The 1993 Government Performance and Results Act, supported by both parties in Congress, was billed as a first step toward the fulfillment of Clinton's pledge.

Under the legislation, agencies were to submit detailed reports setting out long-range goals and objectives and proposing ways for taxpayers to evaluate whether the bureaucrats they pay are meeting those targets. The agencies also were to draft formal mission statements.

The initial drafts were due Sept. 30, and an early review by the General Accounting Office suggests that the government's myriad parts and departments may have some work to do before Clinton can credibly claim that they have been "reinvented."

"While compliance with the [act] is improving, we have a long way to go to reach the point where every agency knows exactly what it is trying to accomplish and has a plan to reach measurable goals," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas).

According to the GAO report, the first try at reinventing government is loaded with shortcomings and contradictions:

* The Defense Department continues to spend billions of dollars on new computers, but many of its most important functions, such as inventory control, are still accomplished largely by hand or with relatively primitive technology.

* The government has more than 30 departments, agencies or other offices involved in carrying out trade policy and promoting exports, but there is no comprehensive plan that coordinates their efforts.

* The draft plan submitted by the Department of Health and Human Services did not address the question of how to coordinate its alcohol and drug-abuse treatment programs, even though they exist along with those of 15 other federal agencies.

The mission statements, for the most part, are hardly startling. The statement from the National Weather Service, for example, says it exists to forecast the weather.

Never shy about exploiting a shortcoming in government for political purposes, Armey has given the entire effort an F. (Congress was not included in the exercise because, for better or worse, it is not being reinvented.)

"The scores illustrate rather starkly how far agencies are from the ideal and how much work remains to be done," he wrote in a letter to Franklin D. Raines, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, which is spearheading the administration's effort.

To be sure, the drafts that Armey has been talking about represent only a first crack by government agencies at writing the kind of strategic plans required by the 1993 law. Officials say at least some of the shortcomings have been corrected in revised drafts.

But the early returns suggest that the revolution in the bureaucracy that Clinton--and GOP lawmakers--have promised is likely to come about gradually, if ever.

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