By Steve Kelman

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Dying embers of government reform?

I'm in Washington, D.C., for a few days, and I was struck by two things I saw in the Washington Post this morning while I was drinking a cup of coffee at Starbucks. (On a completely different topic, does anybody know if there are any low-fat pastries at Starbucks? I have been partial to their scones, but somebody told me they had l,000 calories and are high in sat fat. The Starbucks people didn't have any nutritional labeling info when I asked this morning.)

At any rate, I noticed in the Post story about the Lurita Doan hearing that the new name of the Government Reform Committee is the Government Oversight and Reform Committee. I think I had sort of heard this before, but hadn't focused on it. On the one hand, I understand the message Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) wants to get across about doing aggressive oversight, and certainly this committee should be doing oversight, but I think it's sad that the moniker "government reform" has been demoted to a secondary role.

It was in the context of thinking about this that I turned to what used to be the Federal Page at the back of the Post's A section, to glance at today's "In the Loop" page. After several years of decline, when the Federal Page basically stopped covering the workings of government, the page was taken out of its misery, I guess several months ago, and replaced with gossip about lobbyists and so forth.

I think of these together, with sadness, for what they say about the current mood in D.C. about improving government management. The slogging efforts to improve government performance are certainly unsexy and wonky. They certainly lack the glitz of lurid agency scandals, real or alleged. Keeping the embers of an interest in reforming government management alive requires constant attention and stoking. But it is a crucial effort, not the least because an atmosphere where scandal gets attention but improvement efforts are ignored is a fear-tinged one one where civil servants will concentrate on avoiding mistakes and not pay much attention to improving the way their agencies work.

If anyone is going to pay attention to the unglamorous work of improving government performance (aside from a few public management professors and many dedicated civil servants), it will need to be political executives in the executive branch, elected officials on the congressional government affairs committees, and the Washington Post (because so many civil servants are among its readers, and government is its town's dominant industry).

At the risk of sounding nostalgic or partisan, Al Gore's genuine interest in improving government performance during the Clinton administration established a tone in town where the embers of interest in government reform were indeed stoked. In the environment he created, the Post nurtured (under the leadership of Steve Barr) a Federal Page that actually reported on government management improvement efforts and even showcased the good deeds of career public servants. Under prodding from the Clinton Administration, the congressional government affairs committees by and large endorsed, or at least went along with, a management reform agenda.

In the current environment, these embers seem to be dying.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Mar 29, 2007 at 12:08 PM


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