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Can Obama make sense of government?

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Monday, January 31, 2011

A cynic might be justified in seeing a call for a sweeping reorganization of the federal government as the last refuge of a politician who doesn't want to ruffle any ideological feathers.

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For example, President Obama could have used last week's State of the Union address to propose a ban on those high-capacity gun magazines that made the recent Tucson tragedy so lethal. But doing this would have brought down the wrath of the National Rifle Association. So, sadly, he took a pass.

The president's aides were quick to say he would address the gun issue soon, explaining that Obama didn't want a hot-button issue to divert attention from his theme of "winning the future."

So giving Obama the benefit of the doubt for now on guns, what is one to make of his pledge to build a "21st-century government that's open and competent" and "driven by new skills and new ideas"?

In fact, this emphasis is long overdue. A response of pure skepticism would be a mistake, in part because progressive presidents have more of an interest in improving government's performance than conservatives do. At this moment, the American right's main objective is to reduce the size of government radically, which gives conservatives a stake in proving that government can't do anything competently.

On the other hand, progressives - as Obama's speech showed - have large expectations of government. These can be met only if it performs exceptionally well. And citizens won't see this as a realistic hope unless progressive politicians work hard to make government more efficient, more effective and more responsive.

But this cannot mean just moving around government's boxes, shifting this agency from one place to another, or merging that department with another. Max Stier, president and chief executive of the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, likes to cite the Sept. 11 commission report's observation that "the quality of the people" in government is "more important than the quality of the wiring diagrams."

"Washington is a city that likes to focus on the wiring diagram," he said in an interview, because changing the diagram "feels like they're doing something concrete when, actually, they're avoiding the problems."

Above all, Obama needs to build on the efforts he has already begun to fix the micro parts of government. These repairs are more important to success than any macro reorganization plan.

The paradox is that the administration has already taken significant steps to improve the way the government buys things, the way it deploys information technology and the way it hires people. It just hasn't focused much attention on them.

Hiring reform is especially important because the retirement of baby boom-era public servants will require the federal government to bring in new talent. Jeff Zients, who came to the Office of Management and Budget after a private-sector career, has made shortening and modernizing the government's hiring process a top priority.

If Obama does nothing else but win new respect for public service and entice a new generation of talented young Americans to join its ranks, he will have achieved a revolution in government.

Jack Lew, the OMB director, insists the administration is aware that the micro matters. "If we don't continue to make progress in procurement, human resources and IT, it won't be for lack of effort," he said in an interview. He added that the administration has no intention of rushing ahead with a massive and disruptive reorganization of agencies. "The point of this project is to do this in a serious way."

That's good news. The administration is likely to start by concentrating on how government agencies can work together to advance its economic competitiveness agenda. It will move over time to reexamining how other parts of government work - or fail to work - in tandem.

Enacting sweeping legislation, cutting taxes or spending in a big way, enunciating great ambitions: all these get far more attention from the media and from politicians than the tough, grubby and very hard work of implementing programs, hiring people to carry them out and managing (and, yes, inspiring) one of the largest workforces in the world.

Then-Vice President Al Gore defined the core purpose of his Clinton-era "reinventing government" project with great simplicity. "We don't want to get rid of government," he said. "We want it to work better and cost less. We want it to make sense." And this is a goal that still makes sense.

ejdionne@washpost.com



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