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GRADING THE GOVERNMENT



Published: Fri, February 8, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



GRADING THE GOVERNMENT

Chicago Tribune: There isn't a politician alive who hasn't uttered the words "waste" and "government" in the same breath.

There's nothing partisan about it. Regardless of party or political philosophy, everyone favors eliminating waste from government. Everyone favors better government, smarter government, more efficient government.

The problem, of course, is one of definition. What you dismiss as inefficient waste is our pet project. And wasteful or not, just about everything in President Bush's $2.13 trillion budget for the coming year has a political constituency -- or it wouldn't be in that flag-bedecked document in the first place.

So how do you separate out the truly wasteful from the politically necessary? And, once you've done that, what do you do about it?

The Bush administration is taking a stab at these questions and deserves credit for making the attempt. The White House has devised a scorecard that ranks how well government agencies and programs perform. Mostly they flunk. And, in at least some instances, it has tried to link that performance to how much money they will get in next year's budget.

Pay for performance. It's a concept familiar to anyone in the private sector. Those who don't measure up pay the price. They don't get raises or they lose their jobs.

That kind of accountability, though, is a foreign concept in government. Programs and agencies, once in place, tend to become immortal. Assessing whether they actually are effective at what they set out to do -- and at what cost -- is often immaterial.

Farm subsidies: That is why, for example, farm subsidies will almost surely be extended again this year -- maybe even expanded -- though there is considerable evidence that the $300 billion in subsidies the nation has sent to farmers over the last quarter century have been utterly ineffective.

The Bush report card gives traffic signal-like grades in five management categories: green for meets all standards, yellow for mixed results and red for at least one serious flaw. Only one agency got the green light -- the National Science Foundation -- and that was in only one of the five categories -- financial management.

That this is an imperfect science is illustrated by the fact that the Defense Department scored red lights across the board and yet is budgeted for a $48 billion increase.

It's sort of like shooting fish in a barrel to make fun of this or to dismiss it as a gimmick. After all, the Clinton administration launched its own crusade to eliminate waste. Remember Al Gore's reinventing government?

But just because it's hard to do doesn't mean it shouldn't be done. Government must be held accountable. Taxpayers ought to be able to judge just how well these programs and agencies are performing. But how can they -- or even the bureaucrats themselves -- begin to judge if there's no yardstick?

Now let's see if the red lights count for something.




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