Reforming the ’20th-Century Bureaucracy’ Under a President Obama

What would the future hold for federal employees in an Obama administration? His acceptance speech yields a few clues and shows very close similarities to the acceptance speech delivered by Bill Clinton in 1992. “Change” to some federal employees may look and feel familiar.

Federal employees know that there is likely to be a change in their working environment when a new administration takes over the federal government in January. Most of the time, and for a variety of reasons, politicians who are hoping to become the next commander-in-chief are circumspect about their specific plans and how it would impact the millions of government employees and contractors.

The best we can usually do is to pick up phrases that may reveal the thinking or philosophy of a candidate and extrapolate from those clues.

With the acceptance speech in Denver of the Democratic candidate for President, Barack Obama delivered one line that should have caught the attention of federal employees who may be wondering what their work life will be like should Obama become the next president. He promised to:” …[G]o  through the federal budget line by line, eliminating programs that no longer work and making the ones we do need work better and cost less, because we cannot meet 21st-century challenges with a 20th-century bureaucracy.”

He also referred to the  “cynicism we all have about government. When Washington doesn’t work, all its promises seem empty.”

What do these comments mean for federal employees?

The reality is that candidate Obama may not know what it will mean in practice either. Senator Obama is still in his first term as a United States Senator and, as he acknowledged: “I realize that I am not the likeliest candidate for this office. I don’t fit the typical pedigree, and I haven’t spent my career in the halls of Washington.”

But a President Obama would apparently want to take some action to fix the “20th-century bureaucracy” that is run by federal employees. That is probably not intended as an anti-government platform and, since Obama obviously wants to considerably expand government in areas such as health care, renewable energy and probably through a variety of federal programs, the future employment of federal employees (in many agencies) would seem quite secure.

For those who have been working around government for more than a decade, the phrases from the acceptance speech quoted above may have a ring of familliarity.

When Bill Clinton accepted the Democratic nomination for president in 1992, he said that “Now that we have changed the world, it’s time to change America.” And, said the future president, ” if we want to use government to help people, we have got to make it work again.” So he did not use the phrase “20th-century bureaucracy” but he promised “change” and, in particular, to change how government works. And, while he did not use the same phrase as the Obama campaign (“yes we can”) the phrase he used multiple times in his acceptance speech may also sound familar: “We can do it.”

Shortly after his election, President Bill Clinton launched a project to deliver on his campaign promise to “radically change the way government operates—to shift from top down bureaucracy to entrepreneurial government.” The result was the National Performance Review.

While no one can predict the future, there are substantial similarities in the programs and philosophy enthusiastically expressed by Bill Clinton in 1992 and those of Barack Obama in 2008.

There have been 11 major initiatives to reform government in the past 100 years. In trying to create a 21st century bureaucracy, there is likely to be another new initiative to reform government. A President Obama would obviously try to use the power of government to expand existing programs or implement new ones and a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars. As he noted in his acceptance speech, “many of these plans will cost money, which is why I’ve laid out how I’ll pay for every dime: by closing corporate loopholes and tax havens that don’t help America grow.”

Chances are, his administration would also try to save a few hundred billion by streamlining the cost of government in some way. The Clinton administration originally estimated saving $177 billion by creating a government that “works better and costs less.” Much of the savings that were actually achieved came from reducing employment in the Department of Defense and urging some federal employees to leave government through “buyouts.”

While no one can predict how the federal government would be changed, chances are the number of employees in agencies such as Health and Human Services, the Department of Energy and the Department of Veterans Affairs would increase. The number of employees in the Department of Defense would likely go down. There would probably be an effort to create a government that “works better and costs less.” With the Obama campaign’s strong support from unions, and in speeches made before union organizations, this is likely to be implemented by hiring more government workers and fewer contractors and changing the government hiring process to try and improve the lengthy and often imponderable federal system of hiring.

in effect, an Obama administration would not be the same for federal employees as it was under President Clinton but there is likely to be a ring of familiarity for those who were working in Uncle Sam’s civilian army in the 1990’s.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47