Belly of the Beast
Civil Servants Get the Job Done
by Frank Wilner
The words of Thomas Edward Lawrence of Arabia are as legitimate today as when penned eight decades ago: "Better to let them do it imperfectly than to do it perfectly yourself, for it is their country, their war, and your time is short."
Consider the experience of a former member of the Interstate Commerce Commission, who jokingly recommended demolishing the ICC building and using the rubble to build a statue of Adam Smith. Although conservatives and libertarians wired congratulations, the remark earned for that member the permanent enmity of the Civil Service, whose day-to-day cooperation is essential for change. Indeed, reengineering government to deliver less rather than more regulation requires what works best in the private sectora team approach, employee empowerment, vision, and a commitment to improvement.
Perturbed that the Surface Transportation Board has neither a home page nor broadcast-facsimile capability, Vice Chairman Gus Owen invoked his private-sector leadership skills. For sure, electronic communication would allow the STB to abandon the labor-intensive, sluggish process of printing, collating, folding, stuffing, stamping, and mailing its decisions. Internet participation would also open the agency to the publicthose additional rays of sunshine that Justice Louis D. Brandeis termed "the best of disinfectants."
But we faced an apprehensive Civil Service. So, instead of simply commanding conversion to an electronic office, Owen searched among our employees for "change agents"visionary civil servants who are eager to put customers first. An interdisciplinary cyberteam was created and empowered to establish the conversion goals. Within days the team produced a cost-effective, creative plan of action, proving again that the obstacle to reinventing government is not the rank and file, but the regulated environment in which they work.
Likewise, it was Civil Service employees in our environmental section who identified an absurd historical-preservation statute that had been used to delay the removal of unused, unwanted track. In a decision denying the preservationists relief, Owen wrote, "It is an assault upon common sense to suggest that unused track running [in this case] through a cemetery might have historic significance. I am disturbed that 16 U.S.C. 470f encourages such impediments without resort to common sense." The culprit having been indicted, it becomes the chore of change agents in Congress to prosecute the offending section of the U.S. Code. (We would welcome a volunteer libertarian attorney who might comb the Code of Federal Regulationsin coordination with our own change agentsin search of who knows how many more regulatory absurdities that should be expunged.)
We are utilizing similar leadership skills to continue downsizing our agency by focusing on the elimination of processes rather than functions, for functions naturally disappear as procedures change. "Deregulation is achieved by eliminating one regulation at a time," insists Owen, "not by tearing down the structure that houses the agency. This is a strategy that is working at the federal level and which must be adopted at the state and local level if the runaway growth of nonfederal government is to be arrested."
In recent months the STB has made it easier to get into the railroad business by making it easier to get out of it. By speeding up the process by which railroads abandon uneconomic track, we are encouraging short-line entrepreneurs to accept the risk of acquiring marginal lines from higher-cost major rail systems. And for good reason, we have also accelerated the process by which those entrepreneurs enter the railroad business.
Perhaps there is merit to the Margaret Thatcher approach of swatting the handbag at every government institution. Yet it is our experience that when patient and committed leadership is provided, there are sufficient numbers of change agents within the Civil Service who can reinvent government as a smaller and less intrusive entity. Better, indeed, to do it imperfectly as we are, because the objective is being accomplished quite perfectly.
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