THE White House ``reinventing government'' team led by Vice President Al Gore Jr. counted 700,000 federal employees engaged in what one official summed up as the ``administration of red tape.''
That is at least twice as many bureaucrats as their work of oversight and double-checking requires, according to the administration official.
In Mr. Gore's report on streamlining and modernizing the federal government, which the president and vice president are promoting around the country this week, many of the 252,000 civil service positions he proposes cutting would be stripped away from layers of middle management.
These layers are the sedimentary buildup of decades of good intentions. What the Gore team has come to see as red tape are jobs largely created to stand guard against corruption and incompetence.
``We did it for a good reason,'' says David Osborne, author of the 1992 bestseller ``Reinventing Government'' and a consultant to the Gore team. ``But to cure the problem, we made it worse.''
The Gore report marks a major shift in the ethos of government management. After decades of concern about preventing scandal at the cost of efficiency, the Clinton administration is now seeking a leaner and more responsive government, and it is willing to sacrifice some oversight.
The layering of government accelerated after the 1973 Watergate scandal. ``It really sped up in the last two decades in concern over waste, fraud, and abuse,'' Mr. Osborne says.
The layers of oversight also added to inefficiency and stifled innovation, in the view of the Gore team, becoming a form of waste in themselves.
Inspectors general, for example, were set up in each major federal agency in 1978 as an in-house watchdog over waste, fraud, and abuse. But Osborne says that the inspectors general were also found to ``intimidate'' innovation, since innovation by definition challenges rules.
Gore proposes shifting the ethos of the inspectors general from a negative one - spotting waste and nabbing rule-breakers - to a broader one that includes recommending more efficient and effective management systems.
These positions accreted to the government over decades in the same spirit that was behind the 10,000-page personnel manual that the Gore report proposes tossing on the ash heap of centralized decisionmaking. In its place, the Gore plan seeks a much more compact set of guiding principles for managers to use in personnel decisions.
Phil Lader, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget and one of the Gore report's authors, acknowledges that in giving up some layers of management and detailed regulations the administration could be creating an added risk of future scandal - ``but not necessarily.''
``How many layers of oversight and protection do we need?'' he asks. He suggests that government needs to ask in each instance whether the cost of the premium is worth the protection it offers against waste and abuse.
The Gore recommendations could even end up sharpening the oversight of government by holding fewer people more accountable, Mr. Lader says. ``If you can get one or two layers of checkpoints accountable, that's better than a lot of checkpoints pointing at each other,'' he says.
The thrust of the Gore plan is to break up government monopolies, expand use of private sources and providers, and further empower federal employees with fewer layers of supervision.
The first executive order Mr. Clinton is issuing this week will ask federal agencies to identify their ``customers'' and set customer-service standards.
Clinton and Gore characterize their effort as moving government out of the industrial era of large, standardized organizations run by top-down hierarchies.
The point, team members say, is not necessarily to save money. But they also know that the only way to get attention and credibility from the public is to save money. The Gore team estimates that if all its recommendations become reality, the government will save $108 billion over the next five years. Two-thirds of that amount would be saved by a 12 percent cut in the 2.1 million-strong federal work force.
The plan drew bipartisan support this week. A Democratic president may be able to trim government where Republicans failed, says Bush White House veteran Jim Pinkerton, just as anti-communist Richard Nixon could open relations with China.
The public greets these efforts with a well-earned cynicism, admits White House pollster Stan Greenberg. ``I don't think the public doubts the sincerity of the president. I think they doubt this town can be moved,'' he says.
Osborne notes that reports such as Gore's should not be dismissed too readily as top-shelf dust-gatherers. Similar efforts earlier this century in fact shaped the modern administrative state, he says.