Waivers are no cure for bad agency rules

As part of his initiative to reinvent government, President Clinton has directed federal agencies to establish methods to streamline the granting of waivers, allowing personnel to sidestep internal agency rules. This process appears to treat the symptoms of government inefficiency rather than the illness itself.

The purpose for waiving rules is to enable "reinvention laboratories" to promote innovation more effectively— a strange concept to me. If an agency has an internal rule that gets in the way of efficiency, why not abolish the rule? Why simply waive it? Shouldn't an agency be concerned if it has rules that aren't necessary?

In any event, the president is probably correct in his estimation of the potential positive impact of waivers, but I am not sure the agency heads and their minions get it. In a recent executive order, the president had to formally remind agency heads that they should be doing all they can to make their agencies operate efficiently. Why do they need to be told that?

The business-as-usual attitude that accompanied the president's "reminder" also troubles me. The president couldn't resist taking credit for a positive result coming out of this initiative to streamline waiver grants. He cited the Coast Guard's marine safety programs for having increased managerial flexibility for field commanders. This was accomplished by allowing them to waive unnecessary requirements that had previously accounted for more than a half million work hours annually, Clinton said.

Instead of taking credit for this so-called accomplishment, he should have quietly castigated the Coast Guard head for allowing these unnecessary requirements to exist in the first place. There is nothing to be proud of when you fix a simple problem. Managers are paid to do that, not to create new problems.

I suppose that fixing a problem and advertising it to the world is the government equivalent of a private-sector company citing increased profits in its annual report. But there is too much politics in this to suit me.

The president's executive order directed agencies to clean up their acts. "I am directing you, where you determine that it is appropriate, to adopt some of the best practices developed by agencies," the president said. Doesn't the tone of this sentence suggest that agency heads wouldn't know a good idea if they ran into it? Otherwise, he would not have needed to define good practices, as he subsequently did in the executive order.

The president defined a "good practice" pertaining to waivers in three ways. First, agencies should act on waiver requests within 30 days or less, or else the requester can assume approval. Second, officials with authority to grant or change agency rules can approve waiver requests, but only the agency head can deny them. And finally, officials with the authority to grant waivers should identify potential waiver opportunities and extend waivers to their own agencies.

The president went on to say, "The vice president's team at the National Partnership for Reinventing Government is ready to assist you in developing a waiver process based upon lessons learned and best practices from agencies that have experience with waivers."

Are we to assume that agency heads do not have competent managers at their disposal and really need Vice President Al Gore to help them develop a waiver process? Give me a break.

The president closed on a vote of no confidence. "I direct you to take every opportunity to extend this process throughout your agency," he said. "You should report to the vice president on actions taken to implement this memorandum by July 1, 1998."

Either Vice President Gore has nothing to do or else the president thinks the people he appointed to run federal agencies are a bunch of nitwits. That's the only conclusion I can draw from telling these guys that they have to report their actions to the vice president.

-- Bureaucratus is a retired federal employee who contributes regularly to Federal Computer Week.

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