WASHINGTON — VICE President Al Gore Jr. works the gymnasium-size room at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) like the kind of professor undergraduates love.
Mr. Gore now is spending at least half of his time, and a growing share, on his six-month effort to reinvent government. He wants to draw out the stories, the frustrations, the Catch-22s, and the bureaucratic tragicomedies from his audiences. Clearly, he has heard them all before.
If the office needs a new fax machine, says one federal bureaucrat, "it takes about half this room to get the clearances." Another official at the National Center for Health Statistics is blocked from conducting fast-turnaround surveys because the Office of Management and Budget takes three to nine months to review proposed surveys.
But the heartiest applause Mr. Gore gets is when he asks if it is too difficult to fire federal employees. The HHS employees in the room - selected by lottery - clearly believe some of their colleagues are not up to snuff. "Every audience reacts that way," Gore tells this audience.
In about six weeks, the Gore-led National Performance Review will report its findings to President Clinton on how to streamline, reinvigorate, or otherwise improve how government works.
This is not one of Washington's grand battles over what government should do. Gore is addressing questions about how government does what it does that are both more narrow and more pervasive.
At root, Gore is seeking to bring into government some of the changes in management that have taken hold in private industries in the past 20 years. "They trust their employees," he says. "They give the men and women who work for them the autonomy to make their own decisions."
The review is concerned with spend-it or lose-it budgeting systems that promote year-end spending rushes, personnel rules that have created 450 rigid job classifications, and procurement rules that mean that it takes the government three times longer than private companies to buy a computer.
Inspired by the fast-spreading ideas of David Osborne, author of "Reinventing Government," and the cost-cutting feats of Texas Comptroller John Sharp, the review appears to be headed toward these ideals:
* Each agency and office should have a clear mission and know what it is.
* Budgets should be based on achieving measurable results.
* Decisions should be made as much as is practical by the people actually doing the work.
* The work is serving customers, whether welfare recipients, taxpayers, or another government agency.
Gore intends to recommend actions that agencies can take on their own, executive orders the president can hand down, and legislative action the president can propose to Congress.
History does not bode well for his enterprise. A long series of presidential commissions on bringing the efficiency of business to government have come largely to naught. He is also up against a culture of mistrust that has entwined Congress in the minutest details of how agencies are run, from one side, and brought agencies under close supervision of the Office of Management and Budget on the other.
One difference is that Gore is enlisting federal employees themselves in the effort, rather than attacking their fortress from outside. His staff is made up chiefly of 200 federal workers on loan from other departments.
In Texas, the state comptroller has performed two government reviews that have cut the biennial state budget by a projected $5 billion to $6 billion. The total budget, beginning next year, is $70 billion, still a heavy increase over the current $59.5 billion budget.
"There have been some dollar savings. There have been some smoke and mirrors," says University of Texas professor of government Terrell Blodgett. But the reviews have been most successful at shaking up the state bureaucracy and forcing a rethinking of how business was done, he says.
Gore will do well to achieve the same effect at the federal level, over decades of entrenched attitudes. On the other hand, entrenched attitudes are not always wrong.
"Time will tell," says Wharton School decision sciences professor Paul Kleindorfer, "when the first newly empowered public servant with fewer supervisors overseeing her work commits $10 [million] or $20 million of public funds on something that turns out not to be such a good idea ... what happens."