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Clarity needed to reinvent government

It can make you a trifle uneasy when a politician starts talking like this. Here is Vice President Al Gore last week at a forum on reinventing government:

"In the long run, we have to build agencies _ and, I might add, a congressional committee structure _ that work more on horizontal than vertical lines. Partnerships and fluid organizations are the key, because networks _ not hierarchies _ define government in the 21st century."

There was more of this. "This means working across agency boundaries _ blurring them into virtual organizations where the customer doesn't have to care which agency is actually delivering the service."

Here's a piece of unsolicited advice for our vice president: Hire a special assistant whose only job is to accompany you with a thesaurus, or perhaps just a bag full of simple words. Forget the strange language called Managementese and its insistence on the virtuosity of virtuality. Talking about "fluid organizations" makes a lot of us seasick.

The problem with the Gore talk is not that it's empty, but precisely the opposite. Gore's obsession with reinventing government is immensely useful, but needs to be brought back to earth.

Reinvention should not be a hobby, a narrow specialty or a technical question. It should be a major part of the political argument, as it is in many of the other democracies, including Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Many social democratic parties are trying to prove they can deliver greater social justice with smaller bureaucracies. Harvard's Kennedy School of Government has launched a big project on new "visions" of governance under its dean, Joseph Nye, and Gore's former reinvention guru, Elaine Kamarck.

Kamarck also cares about those horizontal and vertical lines because she thinks government needs to be overhauled much as private industry has been revolutionized in the last two decades. Should more power be given to line workers? (That, by the way, is what Gore meant by horizontal.) Can government use market mechanisms to deliver public services better? Can government buy things more efficiently, respond to citizen queries more quickly, regulate more effectively and less intrusively?

The answer is not always yes, and some of the talk about government serving "customers" is potentially dangerous. Where government is concerned, we are citizens, not customers. Our system of government is, finally, about self-rule, not consumer goods. Still, shouldn't government speed up its processing of Social Security checks or sending out income tax refunds?

There are two kinds of suspicion of reinvention. One comes from the left, which worries about all this talk of "market mechanisms." There are grounds for these concerns. Reinventing government is not the same as asserting that the private market will solve all problems. Most reinventors accept that certain problems will not be addressed at all if government doesn't step in.

But supporters of government needn't fear market mechanisms in principle. The food stamp program is seen as a great achievement of Great Society liberalism. It is also a voucher program that uses the market while changing it. The government didn't go out and set up its own supermarkets. It gave the poor vouchers to buy food in private supermarkets. Similarly, our university and community college system is a mix of public and private institutions plus government subsidies. There is no single way to do government.

The other suspicion comes from conservatives who suspect reinventors of souping up government's public image so the voters will support big-government candidates. But there is a less polemical version of this view: Most reinventors do believe in government's possibilities and are trying to increase public confidence in its institutions. But unless you believe all government can be dismantled, what can be wrong with trying to make it work better?

David Brooks, the conservative writer, has attacked the notion of "beyondism" by which he means the tendency of many on the left to talk about the need to move "beyond left and right." He sees this as a ploy through which progressives disguise their true objectives in a conservative time.

He has a point, but not the final word. "Beyondists," of whom reinventors are a leading faction, are trying to change the political argument by asking that we argue less about the size of government and more about how government should do the work it needs to get done. If Al Gore can escape his vertical and horizontal straitjacket, the voters might discover that he has a lot to say on the subject.

Washington Post Writers Group