Saturday, May 29, 2010

A Review of National Performance Review: From Red Tape to Result Creating a Government that Works Better and Costs Less

On September 7, 1993, with officials and media present on the White House lawn, President Clinton and Vice President Gore stood against a backdrop of forklift trucks loaded with volumes of federal rules, procurement rules, and personnel rules to speak of a vision of government, cleared of bureaucracy and freed of red tape and senseless rules, as follows “We intend to redesign, to reinvent, to reinvigorate the entire national government” (Arnold p. 407, 1995). Seventeen years after that momentous occasion, it is sad to note that the rhetoric of reform and political reality of the National Performance Review (NPR) is like all the other promised reforms before it, an attempt to mask the complexities of the administrative state and separation of power doctrine in populist accent without any gain to the public.

The article detailed four key principles that will tackle the “government problem”: (1) Cutting red tape, (2) Putting customers first, (3) Empowering employees to get results, (4) Cutting back to Basics: Producing better government for less. One common thread in all this is that they are all recycled ideas from private sector. First of all, as Luton (2007) argued it is difficult to measure red tape with any “objective reality” (p.533). What is more, citizens are not customers, and cutting to basics meant a reality check that will admit that employees did not make the policies that is preventing government from producing better government for less.

It was Dwight Waldo (1981) who states that in the United States, “nearly all contemporary public problems can be framed in terms of relating the political to the administrative” (p.73). Despite repeated attacks on its assumptions, the politics-administration dichotomy is alive and kicking in modern public administration. It has even been argued that cotemporary public administration theory as a prescription for administrative system is torn by separation of powers and partisan politics (Arnold 1995). It is from this paradigm one is best situated to view the Clinton/Gore NPR reforms of the administrative state.

In the rhetoric before and after NPR, the regime perceived government as provider of services whose performance can be improved through techniques and concepts borrowed from the recent history of corporate restructuring and reinvention. As novel as this may sound to the regime, this rhetoric resembles the Progressives apolitical approach to municipal services (Carroll 1995). NPR primary focus, which is to “make our government work for the people, learn to do more with less, and treat tax payers like customers” (Shafritz, p.552, 2007) is eerily similar to progressive demand to remove political considerations and other extraneous factors from service provision.

NPR spoke to and validated a widespread, public distaste for big government and the regime took advantage of this to cut government expense and jobs, whilst creating revenue that pays for his new initiatives. Sadly however, the promise of projected savings was more appearance than reality as the Congressional Budget Office reported that NPR had systematically inflated the savings projections attached to its recommendations (Arnold, p.415, 1995). Thus at the end of Clinton’s tenure the federal government ended up adding more layers of “red tape” than it met when it assumed office.

Historically, beginning from 1905, governmental and administrative reforms had always been premised on scientific and technical necessity, which enabled the justification of expanding presidential power. The progressives expanded governmental activity, and administrative capacity, foresaw a positive, administrative state (Arnold, 1995). This perception of reforms changed, beginning with President Carter, Reagan, and Clinton who all pose reorganization as “a weapon against government” (Arnold, p.412). The shifts from technical efforts to improve administration, to frontal public assaults on the “bureaucracy problem” (p.304) makes NPR produces winners and losers.

The Clinton administration however overestimated its ability to implement some of the recommendations of NPR, for instance, of the 117 "action" items in the main body of the report, at least 60 require explicit action by Congress. Many others, if implemented without close consultation with Congress, might provoke congressional efforts to overcome them. This has led many scholars to conclude that NPR is merely an attempt to consolidate presidential powers at the expense of the separation of powers enshrined in the constitution. It “advances a strong if not radical Hamiltonian approach to administration” (Carroll, p. 307). Some of the red tape the NPR would eliminate defines the extent and jurisdiction of administrative power and procedures.

In conclusion, one could argue that to the extent that NPR seeks to apply private sector reorganization to public governance, it ignores the reality expressed in The Federalist Papers, the Constitution, and American history. The primary purpose of the federal government is to establish and maintain a legitimate framework for reconciling differences among citizens and groups in pursuit of national values to create a more perfect union and not to sell products and services to customers. The result of the NPR exercise is a narrow and distorted view of government and public administration.