Document Name: Chapter 5 -- Conclusion
Owner: National Performance Review
If you worked in construction back before the turn of the century and someone told you your work was "good enough for government work," you'd have been pleased as punch. In those days, the government's construction standards were higher than anyone else's.
"Good enough for government work" meant the best.
But during the intervening century, that phrase has become a term of derision. A focus within government on convoluted procedures and seemingly arbitrary, often silly, and certainly costly rules drove even the best-intentioned people--government contractors and government employees alike--to work to meet the letter of the regulations, but not to excel. They didn't think excellence was appreciated by government, and they felt powerless to change the system so it would be.
Can we turn the situation around? Can "good enough" be best? Think about Japan for a moment. Only a few decades ago, "Made in Japan" meant cheap and shoddy. Now, in many product categories, it means the best there is. You can turn anything around if you work hard enough and smart enough.
You can even turn around a government.
It's not a theory. In the two years since President Clinton's "reinventing government" initiative began, hard evidence has emerged throughout the nation that the federal government can be fixed. It's happened already in Maine, where hassle-free partnerships of government, industry, and labor have made workers safer. It's happened in Miami, where passengers are clearing Customs and Immigration so quickly that the airline baggage systems can't keep up with them. It's happened in Seattle, where shippers know their cargo containers are cleared even before their ships dock. It's happened in New York, where veterans are getting the kind of personal service that we'd expect only from the best private insurance companies.
And in many instances, government isn't just fixed, it isn't just as good as business--it's the best in the business, according to private-sector evaluators. As we've seen, the National Security Agency's travel management system is the best. The Air Combat Command's pharmacy chain--one of the largest in the world--is the best. Some government services are so good that the best private industries are measuring their own performance against the government's. IBM and USAA Insurance are benchmarking themselves against Social Security. The toy manufacturing giant Mattel is benchmarking itself against the Consumer Product Safety Commission's hotline.
Has anyone noticed? Business Week, Newsweek, and The New York Times, among others, have begun to report on "the quiet revolution" underway to make government work better and cost less. In an open letter to President Clinton, Financial World magazine said of the reinvention initiative, "You've been working behind the scenes to improve government financial controls, contract oversight, performance measurement, strategic planning, training, procurement, and a host of otherÉprocedures.ÉAnd we think you're making real progress."1 Says the Brookings Institution, which earlier this year released a critique of the 1993 reinvention report, "The first year of the NPR generated more progress than almost anyone--indeed, perhaps more than the reinventers themselves--imagined possible."2 This year, for the first time, the Ford Foundation and Kennedy School of Government will award half of their prestigious Innovations in American Government awards to federal government initiatives--awards worth $100,000 each. In these and many other instances, "good enough for government work" is the best.
And Americans have noticed too. In addition to industrial workers in Maine, passengers in Miami, and veterans in New York, callers to Social Security have noticed, too, by the millions.
If you haven't felt a difference yet, you will. This year. Many of these and other initiatives have been expanded nationwide. But it's a big country, and there's still a lot to work on. As President Clinton has pointed out repeatedly, the way for government to win back the faith of the people is "one customer at a time."3
The essential ingredient in bringing about so great a people-led change--indeed, the essential ingredient of self-government--is trusting the people involved. In this case, that means government employees and the people they serve.
Democracy stands or falls on trust. Throughout our history, however, that trust has been tentative. Right from the start, our founding fathers made sure no single branch of government--neither executive, legislative, nor judicial--and no one group of citizens could, on its own, determine the course of the nation or, more importantly, abridge the rights of individuals. We call it our "system of checks and balances." If our federal government seems fragmented, duplicative, and inefficient, one of the reasons is that we designed it that way from the start. On purpose--because we trusted the whole of the American people more than we trusted any part that claimed to represent us. In fact, we were the first large modern republic in which dispute, disagreement, and debate were defined as hallmarks of love of country. We didn't believe--and still don't--that any system of government is perfect, but we believed fervently that any system of government is perfectible. And we've been perfecting ever since.
It's often said these days that the American people need to have more trust in the government. That's not all. If the reinvention initiative has taught the government anything (and it has taught it many things), it is that the government needs to have more trust in the American people--including its own employees. It needs to trust that when we say we need something, we're right. It needs to trust that when we say something needs fixing, it does. It needs to trust that when we're given a goal to reach, we'll reach it.
When we are not trusted, when nothing we say or do seems to make a difference, we feel powerless. Elections alone do not restore that power. The power that matters in a self-governing democracy is the power we can exercise "over-the-counter," on a daily basis, whenever we interact with our government, whenever we seek to make our needs known. Someone must be listening. Someone must act.
If the American people and our government--which, after all, is simply more American people--are to build trust in one another, it can only happen through thousands, even millions, of personal interactions. Laws can't mandate it. Regulations can't require it. Executive orders won't achieve it.
We have to do it ourselves, individually and through association with one another. There are people in America who think that any individual who attempts to take responsibility for the common good is hopelessly naive. There are others who think such actions are dangerously radical. But we are a nation of hopelessly naive radicals--of people who will not give up the dream of a nation run by its own people.
We now know that the federal government cannot be the nation's caretaker. For one thing, it would cost too much. For another, it often doesn't know what needs to be taken care of. And finally, taking care of someone's every need doesn't really help them. In the end it weakens them, makes them feel helpless, and eventually resentful. If we are to redeem the promise of self-government, then we need to do it ourselve.
And that may be the most important lesson so far of this continuous process of reinventing our government. If it is to continue to succeed, it must never waver from its commitment to and confidence in individuals--including the American people and the government's own front-line workers.
1. Katherine Barrett and Richard Green, "An Open Letter to the President,"
Financial World, October 25, 1994, p. 42.
2. Donald F. Kettl, "Building Lasting Reform: Enduring Questions, Missing Answers," in Inside the Reinvention Machine: Appraising Governmental Reform, Donald F. Kettl and John J. DiIulio, eds. (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1995), p. 9.
3. Bill Clinton, remarks on release of Standards for Serving the American People, Washington, D.C., October 1994.