WHEN Texas faced bankruptcy in 1991, state comptroller John Sharp spent five months reviewing inefficiencies in the government. His proposals, even after severe whittling down in the Legislature, cut 8 percent from the Texas budget.
Now President Clinton is making a similar attempt to streamline the federal bureaucracy.
The effort, headed by Vice President Al Gore Jr., will take six months to produce recommendations and longer to actually save money and improve services. In the meantime, it serves as another argument by the White House that it is determined to cut government waste as it asks Americans to pay higher taxes.
The nature of federal spending does not offer potential savings nearly as deep as those in state government. Federal obligations such as interest on the debt may be wasteful spending, but they are not readily avoidable.
The appointment of the vice president to lead the review, however, is a powerful signal of high-level attention. "There's no precedent for that," says Calvin Mackenzie, a professor at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and an expert on federal management.
Mr. Gore will lead more than 100 managers and experts from throughout the federal government in asking whether programs work and how efficiently. The White House is calling it a National Performance Review.
Following the pattern of corporations that have restructured, the review will recommend where unnecessary layers of management can be eliminated and where services can be improved.
The review is also bringing the 800-number populism of the campaign to government. The White House is publishing toll-free numbers for each major agency and department so citizens can report waste or suggest improvements.
The guiding spirit of the effort is David Osborne, consultant and author of "Reinventing Government" who advises governments at all levels how to shift incentives and reward efficient service.
The difference between efforts like this one that work and those that reach dead ends, says Steven Kelman, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, is how they use the energies of the federal bureaucrats.
"Concentrate your energies where there is already momentum for change," he says, because ultimately the people staffing the agencies themselves will make or break the effort. "The commission disappears. The attention of the president disappears. The people at the agencies remain."
The review is starting from that principle. "No one is more frustrated by the bureaucracy than the workers who deal with it every day and know better than anyone how to fix it. Employees at the front lines know how to make government work if someone will listen," says the White House statement on the review.
"I think it's a very good first step," says Sen. William Roth (R) of Delaware, who is proposing a commission to take a more sweeping look at reorganizing government. The Gore effort will not reorganize the executive branch, he notes. "So what they're doing is improving the process we've got."