'Show me the work!'

Commentary: Designing jobs with greater responsibility and autonomy is important

The fight against government bureaucracy — rules, sign-offs/ reviews and stovepiping — was one of the central themes of the reinventing government effort of the 1990s. Efforts were made to direct people away from thinking that their jobs consisted of complying with rules to thinking that their jobs consisted of delivering results to people.

In the procurement area, the effort against bureaucracy had a double purpose. We tried to reduce the burden of bureaucratic rules on buyers and users of information tech.nology, so that those responsible for delivering services through IT could concentrate on doing their jobs. And we tried to reduce the burdens on procurement people, so that those responsibl.e for purchasing could concentrate on developing more productive business relationships between government and vendors.

With the growing talk of the government's workforce crisis, there is a new reason to fight against bureaucracy — one that the reinventers of the 1990s didn't think much about. The workers entering the labor market today — whom government will need to recruit as the older generation retires — insist more than their predecessors did on jobs with considerable responsibility and autonomy.

In other words, it will be extremely difficult to attract talented young people into bureaucratic organizations. This is one of the key themes emerging in the report the National Academy of Public Administration wrote last year for the CIO Council on attracting young IT workers into government. It is a key theme in the recent book "The New Public Service," by Paul Light. As Light puts it, what young people are saying is, "Show me the work!"

Designing jobs with greater autonomy and responsibility, for individuals and teams, is important for producing better government results for a reason not considered in the reinventing government efforts. We need to do this to attract a new workforce of a quality that will produce good results from government.

Given the increased urgency of the struggle against government bureaucracy in the age of the human capital crisis, the Bush administration needs to be more forthright and "on message" than it has been on this issue.

To its credit, the administration has identified the workforce crisis as one of its management priorities.

But no administration spokes.person has sounded an alarm on the dangers of government bureaucracy the way Al Gore did. And there are some disturbing off-message noises. Bush's administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy occasionally makes statements that sound nostalgic about the pre-procurement reform bureaucratic regime. The Veterans Benefits Administration may move away from the integrated case-management approach begun under previous leadership and revert to a stovepiped factory approach.

The workforce crisis requires us to ramp up the war on government bureaucracy, not retreat from it.

Kelman, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy from 1993 to 1997, is Weatherhead Professor of Public Management at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

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