ONE year after Al Gore launched a sweeping drive to ``reinvent'' the way the federal government operates, the effort is besting cynics and ``proving one of the most lively management reforms in American history.''
This is the conclusion of a thorough study of the effort just completed by the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
Not that federal bureaucracies are recognizably different yet in most places. Nor does Brookings find the reinvention effort sustainable without much harder work. But the report's author, Don Kettl, says: ``There's been nothing like it in a generation in American government for stirring up the bureaucracy.''
* The telephone-book sized Federal Personnel Manual has been scrapped, handing personnel authority to agencies themselves.
* The infamous ``military specifications'' that describe even the simplest Defense Department purchases - from ash trays to raisin muffins - in pages of engineering detail have been scrapped for hundreds of categories of purchases.
* The Department of Housing and Urban Development has eliminated its regional offices so the field offices now communicate directly with headquarters.
* The Clinton administration has committed itself by law to shrinking the overall size of the federal civilian workforce by 272,900 positions, or 12 percent, over five years.
``We really are shrinking it, and the positions will not be coming back,'' says Elaine Kamarck, Mr. Gore's chief aide for the re-invention effort, called the National Performance Review (NPR). The vice president notes that the federal bureaucracy will be smaller than at any time since the Kennedy administration.
While national attention has been absorbed by crime and health-care legislation, the NPR team is tracking almost 100 bills to carry out reorganizations and procurement reforms.
A bill to reorganize the Agriculture Department, for example, would close more than 1,000 field offices. It has passed the Senate and the House Agriculture Committee.
Mr. Gore originally predicted that the NPR would save the government $12.6 billion this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. Now Ms. Kamarck estimates that savings will amount to a little more than half that. But will the NPR still save $108 billion over five years? ``You betcha,'' she says.
The focus on dollar savings and personnel cuts is popular with the public and with Congress, Dr. Kettl says, but it has distracted federal managers and workers from the more central purpose of the NPR, which is to manage government so that it ``works better and costs less.''
Kettl believes that, while it would take a generation to transform the culture of the federal bureaucracy, the NPR has made beachheads.
``After the report,'' he says, ``neither the behavior of government workers nor the debate about their jobs can ever be the same.
A search through the ``silly-regs'' computer bulletin board for federal employees confirms that complaints about bureaucratic regulations still abound, such as having to work in 91-degree heat in Denver offices because federal rules require air-conditioning to be shut off over the weekend.
But even the most cynical complaints often hold up NPR principles as the standard against which silly - or silly-sounding - regulations are measured.
Many voices on the computer network, however, are skeptical that the NPR will ever conquer the embedded culture of centralized bureaucracy. And at least one sees the downsizing as little more than a way of ousting people who joined government under Republican presidents and replacing them with ``friends of Bill'' Clinton.
A more serious objection to the NPR approach from some scholars is that it brings business-oriented values to government, where constitutional purposes and constraints should rule. Most federal regulations, after all, were set up to prevent corruption or unfairness. More freedom to bureaucrats means, by definition, more freedom to make mistakes.
The new culture is expressed in a ``permission slip'' distributed at the Department of Commerce. It says: If something is right for the customer, legal and ethical, a wise use of time, consistent with the agency's mission, and something one is willing to be accountable for, then don't ask permission. ``JUST DO IT!''