NPR hits end of the road

The goal was ambitious. At its debut in 1993, the National Performance Review declared it would make the federal government work better and cost less.

NPR is no more. It went out of business Jan. 16 with a mixed track record. Drawing from a budget of almost $1.8 trillion, the federal government in 2001 surely costs more than in 1993, when the budget was $1.4 trillion. Whether the government works better is open to conjecture.

Led by then-Vice President Al Gore, NPR sought to turn government back to basics. Agencies were to become "performance-based, results-oriented, and customer-driven"; federal workers were to be empowered and held accountable; fat was to be trimmed.

Instantaneous electronic communication would replace ponderous paperwork; government services would move online; even the Internal Revenue Service would strive for "customer satisfaction."

"It started out as a holy war," recalled Robert Atkinson, a scholar at the Progressive Policy Institute and an early participant in the effort now known as the National Partnership for Reinventing Government.

For NPR, the timing was propitious. The reform effort took root as information technology was transforming the U.S. economy. Clearly, astonishing productivity gains wrought by computers, communications technology and the Internet in industry could be harnessed to transform government as well.

NPR became "one of the longest sustained and most well-known executive branch reform initiatives in the nation's history," the General Accounting Office reported last year.

But with President George W. Bush moving in to the White House just down the block, NPR has packed up its headquarters and disbanded. All that remains is debate over what was accomplished.

Not a lot, by Atkinson's reckoning. "The promise was much greater than the reality." NPR tinkered "around the edges of a large, dysfunctional bureaucracy, but they did not tackle the major problems," he said.

"Certainly, a lot of agencies have become more customer friendly, and that's good. And some modest progress occurred in electronic government. But NPR was hobbled by limited resources and political timidity," Atkinson said. Ultimately, the holy war "became institutionalized."

Donald Kettl, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, offers a more upbeat assessment. Reinventing government remains "a work in progress," with some notable accomplishments.

Kettl credits NPR with "IT-based" procurement reforms that include buying through online reverse auctions, which often yield substantial savings.

The Clinton administration claimed to have saved $12 billion through NPR-backed procurement reforms. Although not provable, the claim is "eminently reasonable," Kettl said.

But not all NPR savings claims are as credible. Last summer, GAO questioned NPR's estimate that its initiatives saved $137 billion during the Clinton administration. At least part of those savings came from efficient practices undertaken independently by various agencies, GAO reported.

Improving customer service was a key NPR initiative, and "in lots of places, the government is a better place to do business with," Kettl said. "Even agencies you love to hate, like the IRS," are undeniably improved, he said.

Perhaps NPR's most controversial accomplishment was cutting the federal workforce by 377,000—17 percent.

"They started out with guns blazing reducing the workforce," Kettl said. But the reductions were not well planned. "That was especially the case in [IT], where strength needed to be increased," not cut, he said.

In some agencies, cuts of key personnel wiped out institutional memory and added to work backlogs, according to GAO. At others, plans were made for IT systems to take over jobs of dismissed personnel, but the personnel cuts were made before the IT systems were in place, GAO added.

And as agencies relied increasingly on computer technology, their computer security efforts failed to keep pace. "Our nation's computer-based infrastructures are at increasing risk," GAO reported.

1993-2001: NPR's claim to success Cut 377,000 people from federal workforce—17 percent. Secured $137 billion in total savings. Put hundreds of government services online. Increased customer satisfaction with federal agencies, according to surveys. Dramatically increased job satisfaction in agencies that stressed "reinvention."

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