Looking and sounding a bit like a flock of animals on the verge of becoming endangered, 200 regulators gathered in a federal building this week to relearn their bureaucratic skills and, in the eyes of some, possibly save their species.
It's not that any of the federal bureaucrats actually needed to be taught how to spin the wheels of government. But the meeting was called to explain to them that President Carter and his economic team want them to regulate in different ways.
One of the gurus of the program, Alfred Kahn, chairman of the Council on Wage and Price Stability and the administration's chief inflation fighter, sounded the warning in remarks opening the session.
"This audience needs no reminder that government regulation is under attack, fierce attack," Kahn said. "That alone suggests the wisdom of re-examining our methods -- as well as each substantive policy -- if we are to preserve the values that it is our job to preserve and that we believe in."
Calling the administration's program a "radically different psychological approach" to regulation, Kahn laid out what the administration hopes is both a way to cut the costs of complying with federal rules and at the same time a way to blunt the vitriolic business attack on government regulatory activities.
Kahn said that not only are regulatory costs a political and economic problem but regulation is also under attack because of the coercive nature of government interference in the business world.
"The revolt against regulation that we are experiencing is a revolt also against government compulsion and meddling," Kahn said, noting that the complaint cannot "simply be dismissed as either ignorant or misdirected sloganeering."
The two criticisms of federal regulation -- cost and the heavy hand of Big Brother -- "suggest two corresponding guidelines for our experimentation with novel regulation techniques: efficiency and the minimization of coercion," he said.
This week's get-together is part of the administration's effort to implement Carter's June 13 order to encourage rule writers to use so-called "innovative" techniques in regulating.
Instead of simply writing conventional regulations that set standards and force businesses to comply with regulatory goals, the administration is pushing a series of techniques that are designed to use market forces and flexible methods as alternatives to conventional command-and-control regulatory techniques.
Among the methods being advanced by the Carter economic team are:
Programs that provide economic incentives to encourage industry compliance with regulatory initiatives, such as Environmental Protection Agency program that urges federal agencies to purchase quieter machinery, thereby providing a reason for industry to produce them.
Regulations that use "marketable rights" or penalties to be paid when an industry is violating a given standard. The EPA, for example, is considering a plan under which truck manufacturers pay penalties for selling trucks for violate emissions standards.
Some of this new approach to regulation already is being taken. But this week's conference -- put together by the U.S. Regulatory Council, composed of 38 agencies -- is the administration's main effort this summer in pushing its goal.
"Without engaging the Indians early on, there would be no hope for this thing," said Peter Petkas, the director of the council.
The activities of the council have centered primarily on bringing together the chiefs of the federal executive branch and independent agencies.
But this week's conference -- which was attended by representatives of 36 agencies, the White House economic staff and the Office of Management and Budget -- was the first attempt by the group to assemble people from across the federal bureaucracy to improve their skills.
It is impossible, of course, to measure the success of the program, other than to note that it appeared to be the first time that many of the regulators actually had shared both their problems and successes. The regulations they write ultimately will determine the success of the administration plan.
Government seminars are hardly new, but -- with regulators under attack from all sides these days, as Kahn pointed out -- perhaps the council will have something substantial to report to Carter by the end of the year.
"I am confident that if we do these things, we can count on the support of the overwhelming majority of the American people," Kahn said. "To the extent we fail to do so, we don't deserve that support."