The speech Clinton never gave

During last year’s campaign, it became known as The Speech He Never Gave. It was a speech on “entrepreneurial government,” a new way of organizing the bureaucracy to cut down on wasteful spending and excessive staffing and improve the delivery of services.

It was always somewhere just over the horizon in Bill Clinton’s campaign—a subject of humor to some insiders and of regret to others. Some blamed the influence of public employee unions, which endorsed early in game, for inhibiting Clinton for suggesting that government was an overstuffed couch. Others said that talk of big reorganization plans smacked too much of Jimmy Carter and would divert voters from the desired focus on economic issues.

Whatever the case, the speech was never given. And the theme seems to have disappeared far from public discussion of the plans of the new administration. And that’s a real loss.

The inertial forces in goverment are enormously powerful. Programs, once launched, tend to go on forever. Agencies are immortal. Unless a president comes to town determined to shake up the system, he will usually find that the only way to energize it is to add new layers on top of the old. Clinton has done that already. Despite his promise to streamline the White House staff, he has added a new National Economic Council, of unknown dimensions, to the pre-existing Council of Economic Advisers, the Treasury, the Office of Management and Budget and all the other bureaucracies that have an oar in economic policy-making.

That same thing is likely to happen in government programs, from health care to high-tech development, unless Clinton deliberately searches out places to slim down and redesign the federal Goliath.

A good place for him to start might be the chapter on the “new federal compact” in “Mandate for Change,” the volume of proposals issued last month by the Progressive Policy Institute, Clinton’s favorite think tank. The chapter was written by David Osborne, whose books on state and local experiments in “reinventing government” have been influential in shaping Clinton’s thinking.

Osborne argues, with great vehemence, that Clinton should launch a serious effort to sort out and rationalize the responsibilities of the three levels of government—national, state and local—with a view to saving money, slashing layers of bureaucracy and, most important of all, getting the citizens better results.

That sounds like Republican talk; in fact, both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan did start such efforts. But they stalled well short of success, stymied by the suspicion in Congress, state legislatures and city halls that these conservatives were just looking for ways to sabotage vital social services.

Presumably, Clinton’s credentials with the governors and mayors are good enough to spare him from that cynical suggestion. The starting point, Osborne rightly suggests, has to be an examination of the 557 separate grant programs that funnel almost $160 billion a year into states and local communities. Although almost all the services are rendered locally, people on the receiving end must satisfy the miniscule eligibility standards and detailed regulations that Congress and the bureaucracy attach to the money. That means thousands of federal and state bureaucrats are kept busy writing the regs and seeing that they are complied with.

Osborne suggests that easily 100 of the grant-in-aid programs could be eliminated and another 400 consolidated into what he calls “challenge grants”—block grants with built-in rewards for those who demonstrate they are getting results. He also endorses the plea governors and mayors have made for years for more flexibility in the use of these funds.