The National Performance Review

John Kamensky
Assistant to the Deputy Director of Management
U.S. Office of Management and Budget

National Performance Review
Suite 200, 750 17th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20006
Phone: 202-632-0375


What Did We Set Out To Do?
What Have We Accomplished?
What Are We Going To Do Next?


Over the past four years, the U.S. federal government's reform efforts have been led by Vice President Al Gore under the auspices of an interagency task force, the National Performance Review. It issued a set of recommendations in 1993, again in 1995, and reassessed its approaches and progress in early 1997 to prepare for the next four years. It is currently working to ensure implementation of its existing recommendations and to change the operating methods within agencies to make the government "work better and cost less." This paper reviews the origins of the effort, describes some of its accomplishments over the past four years, and lays out some of its goals for the next four years.

The National Performance Review

Presentation Notes, Plenary Session
Conference on Civil Service Systems in
Comparative Perspectives
Indiana University
Bloomington, IN
April 6, 1997


The U.S. government has three branches: the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. The executive branch, headed by the President, is responsible for managing a budget of $1.7 trillion. The legislature has over 200 committees and subcommittees that conduct substantial oversight of executive branch agencies. The judiciary occasionally imposes activities or constraints on executive agency actions.

There are 1.9 million civil servants and 1.5 million military in 14 cabinet departments and 140 other agencies. Forty-one percent of the civilians work in the Defense Department. The federal government delivers few direct services. Most are delivered by the 50 states or the 83,000 local governments The federal government has about 40,000 field offices; these are loosely organized into 10 regions. While there have been extensive reform efforts at the state and local levels, this paper focuses only on the federal government. The current reform effort, begun in 1993, follows ten other federal reform commissions this century. Most achieved mixed results.


President Bill Clinton took office in 1993 having promised to "reinvent" the federal government to make it work better and cost less. He was the first Democratic president in 12 years and his party controlled the Congress at the time he assumed the office of President.

He took office at a time of extensive public sector management change in other countries, as well as within U.S. state and local governments. These changes were undertaken largely because of the pressures of global competition or financial crises. In the U.S. federal government, the impetus for action was an increasing public distrust in the ability of the federal government to do things right. These earlier changes were described by Osborne and Gaebler in their 1992 book, Reinventing Government and were acted upon by the 1991 Texas Performance Review led by John Sharp, that state's comptroller. These activities led to the creation of the National Performance Review four years ago, shortly after President Clinton took office in early 1993.

This paper summarizes the activities of the National Performance Review (NPR) by examining what we set out to do, what has been accomplished over the past four years, and what we plan to do in the next few years. NPR is often accused by many academics as relying heavily on the use of stories. That is now taken as a compliment. So, while NPR's story could be described in terms such as public choice, principal-agent, and transaction cost theories, I'll just talk about what really happened.

The development of the theory and approach of the NPR was heavily dependent on the mix of people involved in leading the review. Also, many of the 250 people recruited from different federal, state, and local agencies to work on the review had received Total Quality Management (TQM) training so there was a common language among many of the staff. Taken together, the "theory" behind the NPR's work evolved; there was no explicit effort to ground it in existing public management theory. The results of the Review were based on the practical experience of those who worked on it.


It was March 1993. Newly elected President Clinton announced his reinventing government initiative, appointing Vice President Al Gore to lead it and giving him a six-month deadline to produce a set of recommendations. There was excitement in the air, and a clear sense of the unknown. I was at the General Accounting Office and had been working on management reform issues there. I called a friend at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and asked him what the plans were and he replied, "I don't know. This is live and unrehearsed." In a few days, I received a call from a White House staffer who was interested in the work I'd been doing. I knew David Osborne, co-author of the best seller Reinventing Government, because of my visits to foreign countries whose reform efforts seemed to be 5-10 years ahead of our federal government. He was also an advisor to President Clinton on this initiative and had recommended to the new White House staffer assigned to conduct the review, Elaine Kamarck, that we should meet.

She called Bob Stone, Bob Knisely, and myself to a meeting a few days after President Clinton's announcement. Stone was a deputy assistant secretary for defense, responsible for managing all the military bases world wide. He was showcased by both Osborne and Tom Peters (a business management writer) as a case study of an innovator in their best selling books. He began his personal reinvention journey when he read Peter's 1982 book, In Search of Excellence and said to himself "I can do that!" He launched into a "guerilla war" within the Pentagon to get authority shifted to front line commanders. He was full of stories about the craziness of central controls in a huge bureaucracy. Knisely had experience in a wide range of federal agencies and knew a great deal about the internal cultures of different agencies. He brought a set of diverse ideas, many of which were seminal to the Review's operations, such as the notion of customer service, program design, corporate subsidies, and that the federal government was the last remaining vestige of communism (because of its many internal monopolies).

Kamarck, a PhD in Political Science, had taught at Georgetown University, wrote the Democratic Platform in 1980, was a journalist, an author on family policy issues, helped found the New Democrat wing of the Democratic Party, and was a founder of the Progressive Policy Institute. She listened to each of our stories about what we were doing and what we thought the Vice President should do in running his review. She asked us to tell him our stories personally and arranged a meeting a few days later, on a Sunday afternoon.

Never having met with someone quite so high in "the food chain," Stone, Knisely, and I agreed to get together on Saturday and rehearse what we were going to say. But before that Saturday arrived, it snowed. And snowed. We met at Stone's house; Knisely got me there via his 4-wheel vehicle. Stone showed us a draft copy of the now-well known "gold card" with the principles he thought should run the review. He said his advice to Gore would be to create a clear, compelling vision, tell simple stories to convey this vision, and tell it over and over. We rehearsed each of our stories and Stone said he would bring several examples of things that were done in a crazy way in the Pentagon as part of his simple story. The next day, we visited with Vice President Gore, with Knisely driving all of us in his 4-wheel vehicle.

The Vice President listened to our stories and agreed with the principles for the review -- that we should try to create a government that works better and costs less by (1) putting customers first, (2) empowering federal employees to put their customers first, (3) cutting the "red tape" that keep employees from putting their customers first, and (4) cutting back to basic missions. He asked us to join him in making this all possible -- by the September 7, 1993 deadline the President had made in his announcement speech the week before. Our lives have not been quite the same since!

The core activities of NPR were heavily influenced by the contributions of a number of people. For example:

While these people had never worked together before, they each brought a different set of experiences to the table and within a week, had mapped out the approach the Review would take over the course of six months.

To demonstrate the President's commitment to a smaller government, to create the sense of urgency, and to cut costs, NPR's most controversial proposal was to cut overhead positions in the government in half. We found 1 in 3 government positions were in headquarters, personnel, procurement, audit, etc. and cost about $35 billion a year. In addition, we found individual procurement actions for, for example, a stapler, cost at least $50 to process and we found the administrative overhead on government travel was 30 percent on top of the travel itself (the private sector cost was 6 percent). These "non-value added" functions were where we targeted our recommendations for change. Our initial recommendations would save $108 billion over a five-year period (Gore. 1993). Additional recommendations two years later added another $70 billion in savings, along with a series of other recommendations targeted to reducing regulatory burdens on the private sector with savings of $28 billion a year (Gore, 1995).


Describing the accomplishments of the National Performance Review is a bit like the blind men describing an elephant. There are many different dimensions, depending on the viewpoint. Gore cautioned that immediate success won't be possible in such a large set of organizations; he noted that it would take 8 to 10 years. But he believes we are "ahead of schedule." We've used four different vantage points to describe what's occurred.

First, the broad view from the White House is a wide range of successes across the government with some very specific accomplishments. There are hundreds of examples of what works in both large and small ways. Of the 1,500 recommendations, nearly half have been completed. These have resulted in an overall reduction of 291,000 positions and savings of about $118 billion. In addition, agencies have cut 640,000 pages of internal regulations (equivalent to 130 cases of copy paper) and created and publicly committed to meeting 3,500 customer service standards. Regulatory agencies cut regulations affecting the public by nearly 16,000 pages and rewrote another 31,000 pages to make them more understandable.

Second, at the agency level, individual agencies have taken a wide range of initiatives to improve their internal operations. Most of these activities went far beyond the recommendations made by NPR. For example, in advance of the welfare reform bill, the Department of Health and Human Services granted waivers to more than 40 states, affecting more than 10 million welfare recipients, to develop their own approaches to reform. The Federal Aviation Administration reduced 155,000 job descriptions to fewer than 2,000 and replaced a foot-thick stack of personnel rules with a 41-page booklet. The State Department absorbed a 40-percent increase in passport work with no increase in staff. The Commerce Department rewrote export rules for the first time in 45 years. Individually, many of the actions seem insignificant, but the depth and range of actions is breathtaking.

Third, at the unit level, there have been hundreds of successes. The Vice President recognized over 800 teams with his Hammer Award -- given to teams that have reinvented their operations. Agencies have also created more than 300 reinvention labs -- units within agencies that are piloting innovations and are granted waivers from their own agency's internal rules. At this level, there have been remarkable changes. For example, the Minneapolis office of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has moved to self-managed teams. The Customs staff at the Miami Airport have created partnerships with the airlines to reduce drug smuggling and improve passenger processing. The Veterans Administration finance office in Austin cut processing costs for small purchases in VA significantly, reducing the need to process over 1 million pieces of paper a year -- and by converting the agency to the use of VISA cards is getting the government a $4.4. million rebate on its purchases. Teams like these are creating the sense of hope, of the possibility of actually changing the government. The are increasingly willing to risk things to innovate.

And fourth, the customers of government -- citizens, businesses, states and localities -- notice that things are getting better. In 1963, more than 75 percent of the public thought the federal government did the right thing most of the time. By 1993, it was less than 20 percent. Vice President Gore said, "There is no way to re-establish confidence in government and confidence in ourselves as a free nation unless we can dramatically change the way the federal government works" (NPR, 1994 video). By 1996, Roper polls showed the first increase in public satisfaction with government in years. Was this due to NPR's efforts? We don't know, but we would like to believe it is. NPR's latest status report, The Best Kept Secrets in Government (1996), describes the stories of government employees, citizens, businesses, and states and localities that have notice a positive change in the way the federal government works as a result of reinvention. While these are not evaluative assessments, they do show a positive trend.

While NPR has had an impact on a wide range of agencies across the government during the past four years, we think our impact in most places has been wide but not deep. We've been talking with employees across the government in the past few months and have learned a number of things:


We plan to act on what we heard. The most important thing in the next few years will be to go from examples of reinvention to ensure entire agencies are being reinvented. We've seen the pieces at work; now it's time to put them together. To do this, NPR will pursue three strategies.

First, it will focus on unleashing the human potential in the workforce to improve operations. We want to start by ensuring the leadership of agencies understand their role. In early January 1997, President Clinton and Vice President Gore met with the new Cabinet and gave them the "rules of the road" for reinvention in their second Administration. Dubbed the Blair House Papers, after the location of the cabinet retreat, the Vice President asked the Cabinet to build on the successes of the first four years and deliver great service, foster partnerships and community solutions, and reinvent to get the job done with less. He challenged the Cabinet to get the best from their people.

Noting the traditional organizational pyramid, Vice President Gore said, "This approach forfeits the greatest asset of the organization -- the unused creativity and brain power of the men and women in those organizations." He told agency heads to create and compelling vision and personally get power to the front lines by, for example, moving high-grade positions to the field and lower grades to headquarters, and pushing dollar controls to the front lines. Gore plans to meet with senior leaders in the coming year to personally deliver this message.

Second, given this set of rules, NPR will focus its efforts especially on a small group of about 30 federal bureaus. There are well over 300 federal bureaus and independent agencies. However, we determined that about 30 cover the core impact on service delivery to the public, affect the business community, or influence how other agencies get their jobs done. They include agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service, the Park Service, the Passport Office, Environmental Protection Agency, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration. NPR plans to work with the senior leadership in these agencies and encourage them to develop bold four-year reinvention goals that would be the core of their strategic plans (due to be made public for the first time by September 1997 under the Government Performance and Results Act). In some cases, these agencies may be appropriate candidates for the Administration's Performance-Based Organization initiative, which would introduce business-like performance incentives in exchange for customized managerial flexibilities.

And third, NPR will lead governmentwide efforts to integrate the use of information technology in the way the government does its work and the way it interacts with the public. One tool is the use of an Internet Web Page such as the U.S. Business Advisor ( which provides a single face to businesses working with the government, and the commonly requested federal services on the White House Home Page ( which help citizen access a wide range of federal services, such as tax information, travel information, and how to get a student loan. A recent report, Access America (NPR, 1997), lays out NPR's strategy for using information technology to dramatically change the way government works.

NPR's broad strategies for the next few years are also echoed in a recent Osborne and Plastrik book, Banishing Bureaucracy (1997). There the authors identify in a systematic way the experiences of others in the public sector have had in reforming their operations.


The President and Vice President have turned one of their major initiatives over to the civil service. Fixing the government was placed in our hands. They want us to do it for the American people. To restore their trust in their government and in us. To make sure the democratic experiment continues. We've dressed it in folksy terms and fun stories to attract attention, but the President and Vice President are serious and committed. As Vice President Gore keeps on telling the civil service:

"We can turn things around. ‘Good enough for government work' at the turn of the century referred to government construction standards. It meant the best.

Over time it came to mean something else. But we are turning that around again. Remember when "Made in Japan" meant poor quality and shoddiness? It doesn't anymore. It proves we can turn things around if we work at it hard enough and smart enough."


NPR's web site ( that has thousands of documents and is updated regularly with useful information in a wide range of areas.

Clinton, Bill and Al Gore (1997) The Blair House Papers (Washington DC: Government Printing Office) January.

Gore, Al (1993) From Red Tape to Results: Creating a Government That Works Better and Costs Less (Washington DC: Government Printing Office) September.

________ (1994) Creating a Government That Works Better and Costs Less: Status Report (Washington DC: Government Printing Office) September.

_________ (1995) Common Sense Government: Works Better and Costs Less (Washington DC: Government Printing Office) September.

_________ (1996) Reinvention's Next Steps: Governing in a Balanced Budget World (Washington DC: Government Printing Office) March.

_________ (1996) The Best Kept Secrets in Government (Washington DC: Government Printing Office) September.

Kamensky, John (1996), "Role of the 'Reinventing Government' Movement in Federal Management Reform," Public Administration Review, vol. 56, No. 3 (May/June).

National Performance Review (1994) By the People, video, (Washington DC: Government Printing Office) September.

__________(1997) Access America (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office) February.

Osborne, David and Ted Gaebler (1992) Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit Is Transforming the Public Sector ( Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley).

Osborne, David and Peter Plastrik (1997) Banishing Bureaucracy: The Five Strategies for Reinventing Government ( Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley).

Peter, Tom and Robert Waterman, Jr. (1982) In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's Best-Run Companies (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers).

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