I was gratified to read about President Trump’s executive order requiring agency and departmental heads to come up with a comprehensive plan for reorganizing the federal government. It’s long overdue.
It did make me wonder, however, about the last such initiative now a generation old—President Clinton’s “Reinventing Government” project. As it turns out, as noted in this article at Governing, “Reinventing Government’s” legacy is mixed:
There’s no question states and localities function differently today than they did 25 years ago. Performance management systems, though not universally beloved, have become widespread. Departments and agencies routinely measure customer satisfaction. Advances in information technology have allowed governments to develop and share outcomes more easily than ever before. Some watchdog groups consider linking outcomes to budgets — also known as performance-based budgeting — to be a best practice. Government executives in many places talk about “innovation” as if they were Silicon Valley executives. This represents real, undeniable change.
Yet despite a generation of reinvention, government is less trusted than ever before. Performance management systems are sometimes seen not as an instrument of reform but as an obstacle to it. Performance-based budgeting has had successes, but they have rarely been sustained.
I always found the idea amusing that people whose entire careers had been within government could successfully emulate the strategies that businesses have used to become more effective. Cats like warm, cozy fires but they’re incapable of managing their own.
Besides the incentives are just too different. We’ll see occasional spasms of reform, frequently coinciding with election years or changes in administrations, but not what’s really needed.
What’s really needed is a culture of continuous improvement, the sort of thing pioneered by Toyota a couple of generations ago. That’s not something that can be done in a short spurt of effort.