Monday, February 9, 2009

Reinventing Government Redux

President Obama promises to change the effectiveness of government. Al Gore promised to "reinvent" government. I offer below a letter I sent to VP Gore in 1993.  Maybe President Obama will take it more seriously than VP Gore did. As you read. kindly remember this letter was sent in 1993.

June 20, 1993 

Vice President Albert Gore

The White House

Washington DC 20006

 Dear Vice President Gore:

             I would like to thank you for giving an hour of your time to the Council for Excellence in Government last week. I assist the Council periodically and was privileged to be present during your hour with them. While such exchanges are not normally heavy on substance, your discussion was impressive, your responses thoughtful and your knowledge of the issues substantial.  

          Much of your talk seemed right on target, including especially your discussion about decentralizing authority and accountability for performance.  My fears, having worked in government for eight years, is that they will take the delegated authority without accepting the responsibility.  I noted, for example, the current debacle pending in HUD, in which we the taxpayers will be stuck for a multibillion dollar bill.  My question is, will the group in HUD responsible be held accountable??  Will people be fired for misfeasance?  Will SESers (Senior Executive Service)still get performance bonuses??  I expect fully that the blame will be placed on former political executives who are now safely out of reach. 

             I have never been a great fan of SES performance bonuses.  I managed a three-year evaluation of the Civil Service Reform Act and saw no evidence that the bonuses could affect performance, even in theory.  I argued that group performance payments at least offered some prospect of affecting performance.  I could not get a reasonable hearing, because the people to whom I made the arguments benefited from the current arrangement.  My own outrage at huge payments made to private sector executives in the face of unprofitable performances by their companies continues. At least in the private sector, though, there is some risk that bankruptcy looms if performance falls too far.  In government, there should be some equivalent to bankruptcy.  HUD, the Department of Education and perhaps others would be bankrupt now were there such a status.  Then, executives could be moved out and the departments reorganized under some Chapter 11 system--perhaps under a special unit of OMB (at last, something for the "M" side to do!). 

             During your visit to the Council, you mentioned the unanimous opinion among government workers and managers that the system needed to be changed regarding their ability to fire people for cause.  As someone who supervised an office in which we fired someone for cause, I can tell you that the problem is real, but irrelevant.  We succeeded in getting rid of a problem employee, but such people are not the cause of government performance problems.  If you could fire at will for the next ten years, government would perform no better.  One of the reasons it is so difficult to fire non-performers is that the system by which normal performance is judged is grossly inadequate.  As an exercise you should personally read  a set of merit pay and SES performance plans--perhaps 100 plans selected at random.  I know it would be burdensome, but it would also be revealing to you.  Then, read the plans of at least 50 SESers who received performance bonuses--not the distinguished and meritorious awards, but the regular bonus awards.  You will learn why it is hard to distinguish good from mediocre performance and why many people object to SES bonuses.  With so many national problems so clearly in front of us, we award bonuses for coordination of budget and legislative plans.  We reward people for giving out grants.  Most of our executives would shy away from accepting responsibility for solving a national problem.  If the President will be held to a standard of performance dealing with the deficit and resolution of the health insurance crisis, why should we not hold our senior career executives accountable for reducing infant mortality, solving the homeless problem, getting health care professionals to locate where they are needed . . .?  If bonuses were paid for solving such national problems, I would applaud the bonus payments--in fact I would argue that even higher bonuses would be due.  Until that time, bonuses will always look like payments for at best ordinary performance.  We need organizational performance plans with important achievable objectives, not just individual plans.  I am not arguing that we try to force achievement goals where they are not possible--we do not know how to reduce breast cancer, or cure AIDS.  But we surely do know how to reduce infant mortality and we surely do know how to keep people from having to sleep on the streets, and we surely do know how to get health care workers to redistribute themselves.  We lack the will, and, thanks to Reagan the wallet.  But we need to at least get these issues into our accountability systems.

              I hope you look seriously at this issue of real accountability for performance.  The rhetoric of "reinventing government" will be absorbed slickly by our government execs, who are quite good at such absorption tricks.  Every where I go now in government I hear about how "we are into reinventing government", as though that statement explained something.  We need to go way beyond such rhetorical tricks.  Good luck in you review.  we need your intelligence desperately.

 Sincerely, 

Richard E. Schmidt

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