A basis for reform

The recently issued report on improving government performance by Paul Volcker's National Commission on the Public Service is a remarkable document.

What is noteworthy is its content. The report provides an imprimatur for a big-picture strategy to improve government that has gained more and more advocates during the past decade: Manage for results and empower agencies with freedom from bureaucracy in choosing how to achieve those results.

The report makes a number of excellent recommendations. One is separating the Senior Executive Service into a technical/professional track and an executive management track so it's possible to pay in-demand professional/technical people higher salaries without forcing them to supervise staff. The commission also recommends breaking the link between congressional salaries and top salaries in the executive and judicial branches.

Just as noteworthy as the report's content are the commissioners who endorsed it. They include three senior Clinton administration figures and a number of former senior Republican officials.

The report is quite explicit about the problems associated with a bureaucratized civil service system. It also calls for greater flexibility rather than continuing a civil service status quo that focuses only on a 100-plus-year-old battle about the spoils system that ignores how an organization should manage people to achieve results.

Given Senate Democrats' embarrassing performance before the elections in lining up behind the civil service status quo in the context of the Homeland Security Department's creation, it is wonderful to see these prominent Democrats returning to the results-and-flexibility strategy that characterized Al Gore's "reinventing government" efforts.

As for the Republicans, the Bush administration has been forthright and strong in advocating greater civil service flexibility. But, compared to the reinvention efforts under Gore, the results/flexibility theme has not been as consistent in this administration.

In procurement, the administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy has often appeared to be advocating a move backward toward bureaucracy, the opposite of the direction the Volcker report recommends.

As long as the administration places so much of its flexibility emphasis on civil service, it will be open to allegations that its goal is union-bashing more than flexibility. For this reason, the endorsement of prominent Republicans for the results/flexibility theme is also crucial.

The Volcker commission report is an important endorsement of a path toward better government. As Volcker said at the press conference for its release, we shouldn't need to wait for another Sept. 11, 2001, to shock us into adopting its conclusions.

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University's Kennedy School and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He can be reached at steve_kelman@harvard.edu.

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