Rethinking Government

WHEN the 100 days of the Contract With America expires in mid-April, another 630 days of the 104th Congress will still remain.

Republicans will be trying to broaden and consolidate their early victories. Democrats are talking about summer as the time to present a counterprogram. White House strategist James Carville reportedly is already at work on a document that will restate the Democratic vision for government.

As both parties think beyond the first 100 days they would do well to heed the advice management expert Peter F. Drucker offered in the February Atlantic Monthly.

Mr. Drucker begins with faint praise for Vice President Al Gore's sincere efforts to ''reinvent government'' to make it more efficient. Though full of good intentions, his actions are far too mild -- a ''patching'' and ''spot welding'' kind of repair that subtracts only $12 billion from a trillion-dollar budget. Even moderately well-run businesses do what Mr. Gore advocates, routinely and without fanfare, Drucker says.

But he's no kinder to Republicans, whose approach reminds him of the blind and futile ''meat ax'' approach that several large corporations have tried to solve their problems. And he worries that if a methodical ''rethinking'' of government isn't done soon, politicians will be forced by necessity to try this unenlightened downsizing -- and without success.

The benefits of a true rethinking of government are huge, Drucker says, possibly sufficient to erase the federal deficit by themselves. But to obtain them, politicians must begin to ask the right questions.

The solution is not to make government a particular size, large or small, but to create an ''effective'' government -- at whatever size is needed. Congress should identify government ''activities that are productive, that should be strengthened, promoted, and expanded'' (emphasis added). But missions must be vigorously scrutinized too: Does this program or agency still have a mission, and is it the right one? Might its mission have been accomplished?

''The new political theory we badly need will have to rest on an analysis of what does work rather than on good intentions and promises of what should work because we would like it to,'' Drucker writes.

That's a valuable message for both Republicans and Democrats as they think beyond the 100-day Contract.

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