In 1993, President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore launched modern history’s longest-running project to fix the federal government.
Posing with two forklifts loaded with federal documents, Gore vowed to streamline an “old-fashioned, outdated government” with a ruthless focus on efficiency. By the project’s end in 2000, “reinventing government” had eliminated 640,000 pages of internal regulations, cut 426,200 federal jobs and saved $136 billion. Public trust in government rose from 25 percent in 1993 to 42 percent in 2000, the highest it had been in decades.
Today, however, trust in government has sunk back to historic lows. And as the 2016 elections approach, “government reform” is a likely plank in many candidates’ platforms.
But if it’s time for reinventing government again – the 1990s’ focus on “inefficiency” might be too pallid a prescription for government’s current woes. Americans no longer believe inefficiency and waste are the government’s biggest problems, according to a recent study by Brookings Institution scholar Paul Light. Instead, more Americans now disagree with government’s fundamental priorities. It’s not so much how government is doing its job, but what it’s doing in the first place – a problem no amount of streamlining can fix.
Light’s research points toward a dramatic and critical shift in public beliefs about what’s wrong with government. His findings also mean restoring public trust in government now demands a more radical cure: a top-to-bottom rethinking of not just how it delivers services – but why. “Reinventing government” itself needs reinvention.
Using public opinion data, Light grouped Americans into broad categories based on their perceptions of government reform. In 1997, 43 percent of Americans were what Light calls “reinventors.” While these Americans believed government to be inefficient, they still agreed with its basic priorities and supported its programs. And because they were the plurality, the 1990s focus on efficiency was substantively and politically effective.
Today, the plurality are “dismantlers” – those who disagree with the government’s priorities, want to cut back federal programs and likely sympathize with the Tea Party’s goals. Meanwhile, the share of reinventors has dropped by almost half, to just 28 percent of Americans. Even more troubling, Americans abandoning the reinventors’ camp include such electorally significant groups as seniors, Hispanics and the middle class.
This shift, Light says, is the cumulative result of government missteps – from the war in Iraq to the housing meltdown to the government shutdown to the rise in inequality to the continuing embarrassments with the Secret Service and so on – that call into question government’s competence and relevance.
“The reinventors basically came to two conclusions,” Light says. “Number one is that government had lost its way in terms of its priorities. But they also came to the conclusion that there’s something wrong with how government works.”
Given these perceptions, bold solutions – not tinkering at the margins – are the only way to replenish the ranks of reinventors, diminish the power of the dismantlers, and restore public faith in government. Americans “don’t want to hear any more messages about tinkering,” says Light. “They’ve given up on the standard campaign slogans about ‘making government more business-like,’ or ‘creating the most ethical government in history.’ That’s not enough.” Nor is it enough, Light says, to promise to make government more “open” and “transparent,” as President Obama did.
What might be enough, Light suggests, are major reorganizations of the executive branch and civil service reform to improve federal hiring practices. He also suggests a restructuring of the committees on Capitol Hill, which have largely been untouched since the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946. Under the current regime, cross-cutting concerns such as cybersecurity involve multiple committees with overlapping jurisdictions, adding to inefficiency and hampering the ability of lawmakers to look at problems holistically.
Another potential source of reform is the burgeoning move toward “public-private partnerships” – such as states now use to finance infrastructure projects or that smaller federal agencies such as the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) have used to finance development projects overseas with great success. A model of efficiency, OPIC manages more than $18 billion in projects with only about 230 staff – and has returned a profit to the U.S. Treasury every year for 40 years.
This isn’t to say policymakers should give up on cutting inefficiency and waste. It’s necessary – just no longer sufficient. Given the magnitude of the government’s current woes, a forklift full of regulations won’t capture the public’s attention.
But the right mix of bold ideas to restore government’s power, relevance – and improve the lives of ordinary Americans – could be the winning formula for reimagining government’s potential.