Chapter 4 Cutting Back to Basics


Step 1: Eliminate What We Don't Need

Step 2: Collecting More

Step 3: Investing in Greater Productivity

Step 4: --Reengineering Programs to Cut Costs



I feel like that person in the old movie who writes in lipstick on bathroom mirrors, "Stop me before I kill again." However, in my case, the legend should be, "Stop me before I steal some more."

Letter from Bruce Bair of Schoenchen, Kansas, to Vice President Al Gore, May 24, 1993

Bruce Bair admitted to "stealing" from the federal government--at a rate of about $11 an hour. His job was checking the weather in Russell, Kansas, every hour, and reporting to the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA used his information to warn planes in the area about bad weather. But Russell isn't a busy flight station any more. Bair saw just two landings in more than a year during his night shift. Days were only slightly busier. Before the advent of automated weather gathering devices, human weather watchers at Russell and at other small stations throughout the Midwest were vital for aircraft safety. Today, they could be replaced with machines. "From my experience with the machine," wrote Bair, "it is very adequate to protect the air space over Russell." In fact, Russell has had a machine for some time, but the FAA had not yet eliminated the human staff.

Bair concluded his letter to Vice President Gore with these words: "I feel there is very little doubt among professionals that we are basically useless here." A few months later, he quit. Now he says, "I'm no longer stealing from the government." See Note 1

Bruce Bair's story tells us much about our federal government: its entrenchment in old ways, its reluctance to question procedures, and its resistance to change. Its inflexibility has preserved scores of obsolete programs. This is not news to most of us--obsolescence is part of our stereotype of government.

Why is it so difficult to close unneeded programs? Because those who benefit from them fight to keep them alive. While the savings from killing a program may be large, they are spread over many taxpayers. In contrast, the benefits of keeping the program are concentrated in a few hands. So special interests often prevail over the general interest.

That's why we can't eliminate unnecessary programs simply by making lists. Politicians, task forces, commissions, and newspaper articles have been ridiculing wasteful programs for as long as we have enjoyed democratic government. But most programs survive attack. After a decade of tight budget talk, for example, federal budget expert Allen Schick says he can identify just three major nondefense programs eliminated since 1980: general revenue sharing, urban development action grants, and the fast breeder reactor program. See Note 2

To shut down programs, therefore, we must change the underlying culture of government. As we described in the preceding chapters, we will do this by introducing market dynamics, sharing savings from cuts with agencies, exposing unnecessary programs to the spotlight of annual performance measures, and giving customers the power to reject what they do not need. As government begins operating under these new rules, we are confident that agencies will request the consolidation and elimination of programs. Billions of dollars will be returned to taxpayers or passed on to customers.

We will begin this process today:

First, we will eliminate programs we do not need--the obsolete, the duplicative, and those that serve special, not national interests.

Second, we will collect more--through imposing or increasing user fees where pricing makes economic sense, and by collecting what the government is owed in delinquent debt or fraudulent overpayment of benefits.

Third, we will reengineer government activities, making full use of computer systems and telecommunications to revolutionize how we deliver services.

The actions and recommendations described in this Chapter are the first dividend on what we can earn from streamlining government. They won't be the last--or even the largest. The strategy of the National Performance Review differs from that of previous budget cutting efforts. Our recommendations have been discussed thoroughly with agency heads to determine which cuts are warranted, feasible, and can be done quickly. We are ready to act with the full force of the cabinet.