Consult feds for reform

The Bush administration has announced a plan to improve the management of the federal government. Every administration tries to improve government management, so why shouldn't this one?

One thing that would help is to appoint people to Schedule C jobs who have management skills and aren't simply being placed because they helped elect the president. But don't count on that anytime soon.

The Office of Management and Budget wants to set specific performance targets and outcomes for agencies as it develops annual budgets. This approach is part of the "Freedom to Manage" legislation that the administration plans to introduce shortly.

Starting with fiscal 2003, funding levels will be tied to performance, says OMB Deputy Director Sean O'Keefe. This could affect programs the administration believes are not performing well.

This is a harebrained idea. Why penalize a program if it's not being managed properly? For example, let's say the Federal Aviation Administration doesn't manage its personnel resources well. In the private sector, the managers at fault would be replaced. But what the Bush administration plans to do is keep the managers and cut the FAA's budget. That will only make it harder for the FAA to do its job.

OMB officials are also talking about early retirement and buyouts again. If you cut staffing levels, which were reduced substantially during the Clinton years, how can you expect better performance?

And OMB officials are considering merit pay again. When merit pay was first introduced under President Carter, everyone thought it was a great idea. And it was. The problem was it was impossible to implement in the federal work environment. Almost everyone got an outstanding rating the first year.

In subsequent years, agencies were told they couldn't do that and were asked to follow quotas. That didn't work in part because Congress failed to appropriate the money required to implement merit pay. So managers received merit increases that were so small they became laughable. Now, they want to try it again. Good luck. Why doesn't someone realize that if significant changes could alter how the federal government is managed, those changes would have been made long ago? Every incoming administration seems to believe that it's smarter than all the preceding ones.

Political appointees don't bother to ask if someone before them has tried to fix the problem. I have firsthand experience. I was a special assistant to an incoming Cabinet- level appointee in state government. The new people couldn't get information about how their predecessors dealt with particular problems because their predecessors left no records. Why should they help appointees from the other party?

Let's hope President Bush has the wisdom to realize that he can solve many of the problems facing him by consulting career federal employees with institutional memory.

Zall is a retired federal employee who since 1987 has written the Bureaucratus column for Federal Computer Week. He can be reached at miltzall@qis.net.

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