Vice President's Efficiency Roadshow Comes to City

by Alice Cherbonnier

THERE'S NOT A LOT OF GLAMOR in number-crunching and bean-counting. Maybe that's why the public hasn't heard much about the National Performance Review (NPR), the pet project of Vice President Al Gore that began in March 1993.

Also known as the "re-inventing government" task force, the ten-year effort involves a core staff of about 15 people plus a cadre of federal workers from the various agencies, who rotate in and out of the NPR office in Washington on duty shifts of 90 days to a year.

"We take the technology we have in hand and find ways to use it better," said Mike Russell, press secretary fir NPR. After taking time out to consider ways to streamline and improve their agencies' operations, the released workers return to their regular jobs, where their task is to continue this work in their offices' daily routines.

"A lot of what we do is improving processes," said Russell. "It's inside baseball. It's not exciting. It's a long-term, agency-by-agency, person-by-person effort."

The work of the NPR has focused on government bureaucracies in Washington. Now NPR is taking what it's learned beyond the D.C. Beltway. In an all-day "roadshow" at the Convention Center on November 3, Baltimore became the first of many cities to host an all-day seminar on applying technology to improve government efficiency, with a goal of significantly increasing the public's access to the most commonly requested government services via the Internet over the next two years.

Baltimore was selected because of the large "federal presence" here at the Social Security Administration and the Healthcare Finance Administration.

The event, open to state and local bureaucrats as well as federal workers, attracted over 250 participants. It began with a keynote address by David J. Barram, administrator of the General Services Administration, speaking on "Improving the Public's Access to Government Services." Topics covered during high-level panel discussions included the roles of Chief Information Officers (CIOs, not to be confused with CEOs or COOs), an emerging profession in the age of technology. The moderator was Lesley Hearn, CIO of the State of Maryland, whose name and title are not yet household words.

Another high-level panel covered using the Internet and Intranet for information distribution, back-and-forth (interactive) information exchange, and improved customer service; this use of technology in service to constituents is being called "electronic government."

"The Future of Distance Learning & Collaboration" reviewed the applications of the Internet, satellite broadcasts, videoconferencing, and "virtual teams" in the electronic government. The panel discussion was led by Norline Depiza, academic coordinator of the Defense Acquisition University-a powerful but seldom-mentioned government entity.

Participants also heard about coming technology advances and how they can be applied to government services; using technology to improve the process of doing business with government agencies; efficient sharing of information in large organizations; and-what Russell termed "a primary concern"-privacy and security. Panelists discussed the "tension" between free access to information and services and the need to protect personal privacy through built-in safeguards.

All this sounds very high-level, but the end result, Russell assures, will be significant improvement in the way citizens interact with their government. "We have to match the level of service of the private sector," he said. "We're taking the best practices of successful businesses and translating them to the federal government if we can."

Asked for an example of NPR's work that has already touched the average American, Russell suggested referring to the U.S. Government listings in the blue pages of the telephone book. "There are 80 million look-ups a year in that section," he said. "And about half of those look-ups ended up in failure, and calls to the phone company for information." Though it appeared very simple, somehow no one in government had gotten the handle on the idea that telephone numbers to be used by the general public should be listed by service, not agency or department. Realizing the pages were decidedly un-user-friendly, NPR has set to work to re-organize the government sections in 6,042 telephone directories across the country. "Look up `Passport Application Information," Russell challenged. "Now you'll find it listed alphabetically under `Passport' instead of buried under `Department of State,' beneath the subcategory of `Bureau of Consular Affairs.' And soon there will be icons [little pictures] added to help find things faster."

The public can also access, through the Internet, such documents as tax forms and information. These can be filled out and sent back to the government electronically, or they can be saved and printed by the user, filled out the old-fashioned way, and mailed in. NPR is also studying the various forms used by states as well as the federal government; if they can be consolidated into one form to save the user time and frustration, Russell asks, "Why not just fill out one?"

Significant savings accompany the improved and increased use of technology. In the federal government alone, Russell says, improvements instituted by NPR during the past four years can be translated into about $118 billion in savings for taxpayers.

Streamlined access to information is one thing, but making government "user-friendly" on a personal level may not work so well. Not all government workers view NPR's push in this direction as a positive thing.

"All we hear about is `service to the taxpayer'," complained an attorney with the U.S. Patent Office who declined to be identified. "But some of us are in almost adversarial positions with the public, in order to protect the public."

A patent examiner who likewise requested anonymity agreed. "You wouldn't believe the kind of pressure we work under, especially from patent attorneys," he said. "We shouldn't have to bend over backwards to be nice and cooperative to people who don't necessarily have the public's best interest at heart, only their clients'."

Such sentiments might well be echoed by other government employees involved in enforcement functions. But they may find their efficiency will improve after NPR scrutiny. At the "roadshow" in Baltimore, for example, attenders could take a look at the ALERT (Advanced Law Enforcement and Response Technology) police cruiser, equipped with a computer system that, according to Russell, "enhances officer safety, improves the accuracy of traffic and accident records, and helps officers clear emergency scenes more quickly." Using the system, for example, a picture of a suspect or a missing child could be transmitted instantly to officers on patrol. NPR's role, Russell said, is to encourage the development of such practical applications of technology.

Though "reinventing government" is not occurring without pain and resistance, it's happening now, behind the scenes but as close as the blue pages in the telephone book.

The really impressive advances, however, can be found by using the Internet to contact federal agencies.

For an overview of NPR's work, see http://www.npr.gov.

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This story was published on November 5, 1997.