There have been some great moments in "reinventing government" -- the forklift on the White House South Lawn loaded with documents wrapped in red tape, the vice president smashing a glass ashtray built to government specifications, the wheelbarrow full of redundant personnel regulations and the streamlined fish ladder.

Now, there's a hammer -- Vice President Gore's award to honor successful reinventions across the government.

The first National Performance Review Hammer Award, presented by Gore on Friday, went to the Veterans Affairs New York City regional office for improving services to veterans.

"You've heard the old song, 'If I had a hammer,' " Gore began. "You also heard, as I have over the years, about the legendary $600 hammers that the government buys, and you may also have seen the hammer that I used to break the ashtray on the David Letterman show.

"We decided that the very first $6 Hammer Award should be presented to the New York Veterans Affairs regional office. Thanks for building a government that works better and costs less."

The crowd broke into applause as Gore handed the hammer to members of the New York staff, led by regional director Joseph Thompson, an Air Force veteran.

Gore told the crowd he would present other hammers this year as he begins a second tour of departments and agencies to celebrate reinvention success stories. He devoted his first stop Friday to the importance of customer service.

Taxpayers deserve service equal to or better than that provided by the best private companies, Gore said, noting that President Clinton last year issued an executive order directing agencies to set customer service standards.

The order also asked agencies to survey their customers to determine their satisfaction with existing services, to post service standards and measure results against them and to provide the means to address customer complaints.

Gore said the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. Postal Service and the Social Security Administration have undertaken projects aimed at improving the products and services they provide citizens.

Referring to Clinton's executive order, Gore said, "In the past we have designed programs and systems to satisfy bosses, now the boss is telling us to design programs and systems that satisfy the customer. That is the critical difference."

Before presenting his award, Gore talked with Thompson, VA case manager Kelly Chicko and Leonard Davis, a Vietnam veteran who has received medical and education benefits from the VA.

The New York office, which administers benefits such as disability compensation, pensions, education and home loan guarantees, has revamped its claims processing. The 25 steps that once were spread among a dozen or more employees have been cut to eight. Teams now handle a veteran's case from beginning to end.

Davis said in the past he experienced "a lot of frustration" dealing with VA offices that could not answer his questions and could not tell him the status of his claims.

At the New York office, he said, "As soon as I called up, there was an immediate difference... . I've always dealt with the same person."

He added that "from my perspective ... I had a very positive experience."