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Light on leadership
Posted at 02:49 PM ET, 07/07/2011

With debt package, it’s now or never for good-government groups to take a stand

Now that there's a real chance to put government reorganization into the debt package, good-government groups have only days to bring their considerable energy to the debate. And yet so far, most are nowhere to be found in the conversation. Many are distracted by their own (albeit perfectly legitimate) concerns, including campaign finance reform, greater transparency, whistleblower protection and personnel reform. 

Part of the problem is that the community is still divided by old ideologies. Some of the likely suspects such as the Heritage Foundation and CATO are on the right, others such as the Center for American Progress are on the left, and at least some of my old employers such as the Brookings Institution and National Academy of Public Administration have been mostly silent. Yet acting as part of a "strange bedfellows" coalition, they could make a very big difference in the current debate. Somebody just has to take the lead. 

I'm not saying that the entire inventory of past management reforms can be shoehorned into a government reorganization package, but these groups needs to coalesce around a broad campaign to take advantage of this moment for reform. They might not get everything, especially on campaign finance, but they will get a better government and perhaps a soupçon of public trust. And while they’re at it, they’ll increase the odds that the federal government will faithfully execute the laws they care about.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear any budget or policy group will be leading the charge. I can't find a single major one that has added management reform to its debt reduction agenda. Not even the deservedly respected Center on Budget and Policy Priorities—which has released analysis after analysis as the talks have moved toward stalemate, but not one of them on reorganization. Nor has the Concord Coalition, which has long stood for common-sense budgeting but has said nothing about common-sense management. And add to the list the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which has put beaucoup bucks into promoting debt reform, but has yet to invest a penny in government reform.  

There are, however, a couple bright spots. Danielle Brian’s ever-accurate Project on Government Oversight, Gary Bass's OMB Watch and Bill Buzenberg's Center for Public Integrity all have supplied a ton of reports on the need for action. And the newly created Robertson Foundation for Government has been a strong supporter of my work with former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker on this once-in-a-generation opportunity for big-ticket reorganization. But if it can't be done now, I'm convinced it won't be done until the federal government collapses under its own bureaucratic weight.

The Partnership for Public Service is the one good-government group that’s really ready to step up these days in support of big-ticket reform. Created 10 years ago as a studiously nonpartisan support of hiring reform, the Partnership and its chief Max Stier have become increasingly bold in supporting the kind of comprehensive reforms that could reap large savings for budget relief.

Just last week, Stier wrote a tough op-ed for The Washington Post calling for a top-to-bottom reform of the federal pay system. Judging by the dozens of comments posted on the Post's website, his words did not exactly earn him a warm embrace from the federal employee unions and their members. The unions know that the current pay system is broken, but they're not ready to support the courageous reforms Stier offered. They'd rather fight the junk coming off Capitol Hill than offer their own alternatives.

That's just one reason Stier's piece is well worth sending to every negotiator in the debt talks. Stier has a good idea , and one that demands attention in this brief moment where management reform might get some attention.

Stier agreed with the unions that the pay and hiring freezes, increased pension contributions and bonus cuts are a sure path to what he called “a demoralized, depleted and ultimately less talented and less effective workforce.” But instead of further tinkering at the margins, Stier issued a gutsy call for a total revamping of the flawed civil-service compensation system. Created in 1949 for a workforce that hasn't punched in for 60 years, the system is failing at every turn—it is dilatory in hiring new employees, permissive in awarding all above-average personnel ratings, disconnected from merit in the promoting, and utterly negligent in disciplining poor performers. 

That's not even Stier or me making such observations, by the way.  It's the 263,475 federal employees who expressed their concerns in the Office of Personnel Management's 2010 Employee Viewpoint survey.

And yet if there's anyone in Washington right now to lead the disparate good-government groups in a campaign for reform, it's Stier.  He tells it like it is, and should call every ally to his conference table. And soon. 

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Tom Daschle: Washington's leadership failure

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By  |  02:49 PM ET, 07/07/2011

 
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