The National Performance Review (NPR) can be analyzed
in terms of its ostensible purpose of making government "work
better and cost less, "or it can be looked at in terms of the
tactical opportunities it presents to actors in multiple arenas.
Tactical maneuvers relating to NPR are apparent in the political
strategies of the Clinton administration, in the attempted shift in
power from the legislative to the executive branch of government, and
in the role of the central staff agencies in the executive branch.
The authors present the results of their investigation into the
reinvention labs that have been established in federal agencies and
into the organizational politics that accompany these attempts at
innovation. Their findings show the extent to which the outcomes of
organizational change processes are a function of the self-interested
behaviors of individuals and they confirm the value of political
models for understanding organizational change processes.
Evaluating the success or failure of the National Performance
Review (NPR) on the basis of its proclaimed goal of making
government "work better and cost less" is problematic. Whether
the federal government works better than it did in 1993 is a
question that is not easily subject to objective verification. Even
estimates of cost savings from the initiative have varied widely. The
Congressional Budget Office estimated that the Phase I
recommendations would save only 5 percent of the $5.9 billion
proclaimed by NPR.
Ascertaining the success or failure of the venture is further
impeded by the conflicting nature of its objectives. In his
evaluation of the NPR, Donald Kettle (1995; 14) acknowledged that
"Assessing the NPR's more fundamental results is difficult
because it has pursued radically different, indeed conflicting
goals." Kettle cites a disagreement among officials over whether
the primary emphasis should be on making government cost less or on
making it work better. Cutting costs implies a strategy of downsizing
and program elimination; improving service suggests investments in
personnel, training, and technology.
Any evaluation is complicated by the heterogeneous nature of
the recommendations included in the Report of the National
Performance Review (1993). The General Accounting Office (GAO) (1994;
2) commented in its evaluation of the NPR that,
Some of the recommendations were very broad (e.g., 'redefine
and restructure OPM's functional responsibilities'); others were
more specific (e.g., 'establish a hard rock mine reclamation fund').
Some recommendations cut to the core of how government operates
(e.g., 'improve legislative executive branch relationship'); others,
while important, were on relatively tangential topics (e.g.,
'establish federal firearms license user fees to cover costs ).
In place of an overall assessment of the effort, the GAO reported
on the implementation status of all 384 items in the NPR report.
We sought to understand the NPR from an alternate perspective.
Instead of assessing the NPR on the basis of its professed
objectives, we investigated it as tactical exercise from the point of
view of the actors involved. The tactics take place in multiple
arenas. Most evident are those relating to the strategic political
considerations of the Clinton administration. Also important,
however, are the tactics related to implicit shifts in power between
the executive and legislative branches and within the executive
branch, both within and between agencies.
Our primary focus was on the tactics employed by the NPR to
foment change and innovation within agencies. We investigated a
number of the reinvention laboratories established by the NPR that
are designed to foment innovation by freeing managers from central
controls. Our focus was on the organizational dynamics that accompany
the process of change.
The tactical perspective on change derives from the school
of organization theory which regards organizations as political
arenas in which individuals compete while striving for divergent
objectives. This approach contrasts with "rational" models
that portray organizations as highly integrated structures directed
toward the achievement of a single set of mutually agreed upon goals.
The concept of organizations as political arenas has been
developed most fully by Crozier and Friedberg (1980). They argue (p.
19) that the key to understanding organizations is "the analysis
of the different power games which indirectly structure the
strategies of the actors involved" (p. 6).
The political model has particular relevance to change processes
in organizations. Change often implies a redistribution of rewards or
a shift in priorities that can provoke contests between individuals
and groups within the organization. The conclusion reached by Thoenig
and Friedberg (1976; 314), based on their case study of change in the
French Ministry of Public Works, Urban Affairs and Housing,
highlights this point:
Organizational change is not a deductive process which starts
with the objectives and then rationally selects the most appropriate
means with which to attain these aims. Nor does the process
necessarily follow hierarchical lines, with the top in command and
the bottom following orders. As change always affects the
organizational power structure, it will necessarily become the stake
in the internal power struggle between different groups with
conflicting interests in the organization.
The political perspective on organizations highlights the
motivations of different actors as the change process proceeds. It
also makes apparent how actors at different organizational levels can
use change processes to tactical advantage. As an element of the
Clinton administration's political strategy, NPR was of value in
attempting to gain the support of those who had voted for Ross Perot
in 1992 and for its appeal to voters generally (Ifill, 1993; Barnes,
NPR also served an important purpose in the battle over health
care reform that was launched simultaneously. To convince Americans
that an expanded governmental role in health care was warranted, it
had to be shown that government performance could be improved (Marcus
and Barr, 1994; A16).
After the 1994 elections in which Republicans took both houses
of Congress away from the Democrats, the Clinton administration put
a renewed emphasis on reinventing government. The focus under the
second phase of NPR (dubbed "REGO II") shifted, however,
from an examination of how government works to what government does.
This shift reflected the need for a tactical response to Republican
demands for drastic cuts in the federal budget. The emphasis was on
privatization and on devolving functions to state and local
governments rather than on improved performance. The administration's
tack was "to create a leaner, not a meaner government." The
effect, however, was to create additional program stress that served
to increase bureaucratic maneuvering.
Political strategies are also apparent in the institutional
changes recommended in the NPR report. Donald Kettl (1995; 32) cites
the "transfer of power from Congress to the Executive
branch" as one of "the two key ideas" behind NPR.
James Carroll (1995; 307) argues that NPR "recasts and
limits" the congressional role in administering
The proposals put forth by the Clinton administration that would
have effected this shift in power have not met with a favorable
reception in Congress. Of the seven recommendations in the initial
report that would have the most significant impact on
legislative-executive relations, only the line-item veto has been
Among those criticized most heavily in the NPR report for impeding
the effective delivery of service are the major central staff
agencies, the General Services Administration (GSA), the Office of
Personnel Management (OPM), and the Office of Management and Budget
Consistent with the report, both OPM and GSA have been targeted
for major cuts as part of REGO II. President Clinton has recommended
that OPM's staff of about 6,000 be cut by one third, and plans are
under consideration to cut the 17,000 employees at GSA by half (Barr,
1995; A25). Conspicuously absent thus far have been suggestions to
make any serious cuts in staffing at OMB, although OMB is generally
regarded as wielding greater power and exerting greater control over
agency actions than either OPM or GSA.
OMB has not only escaped cuts but has emerged even stronger
than before. James Carroll (1995) comments on the "resurgence of
OMB" as a result of its expanded responsibilities in
implementing the Government Performance and Results Act and the
downsizing targets imposed by Congress. Under OMB 2000, the
management review function has been melded into the budget side of
the agency. Although the verdict is out on the long-term effect of
this change, the immediate effect is to strengthen that side of the
OMB most often accused of over regulating agency activities.
If the power struggles between agencies, branches, or political
parties in the context of reinventing government tend to be quite
visible, those that occur within agencies generally are not. We
sought to investigate the intra-agency dynamics that accompany
attempts at change through a survey of "reinvention
laboratories" established by departments under the purview of
In the spring of 1993, Vice President Gore wrote all department
heads asking each to designate two or three programs or units
"to be laboratories for reinventing government." Gore's
The point is to pick a few places where we can immediately
unshackle our workers so they can reengineer their work processes to
fully accomplish their missions-- places where we can fully delegate
authority and responsibility, replace regulations with incentives,
and measure our success by customer satisfaction.2
The literature on organizational change cited above suggests
that political dynamics often accompany attempts at change. To the
extent that change creates winners and losers, the losers can be
expected to act in ways to impede the change process. Individuals can
make use of tactics that are generally included under the heading of
There is no consensus in the literature on a definition of just
what organizational politics is. It usually implies behaviors other
than those explicitly sanctioned by the organization. The definition
used by Porter, Allen, and Angle (1983; 409) is a useful one. They
describe organizational political behavior as social influence
attempts; (1) that are discretionary (i.e., that are outside the
behavioral zones prescribed or prohibited by the
formal organization), (2) that are intended (designed) to promote or
protect the self interests of the individuals and groups (units), and
(3) that threaten the self- interests of others (individuals, units).
In the public sector, self-interested behavior often takes the form
of advocating for one's program or policy. Such advocacy may be
grounded in purely selfish motives such as money, power, or prestige
or in more altruistic motives. Employing the political model of
organizations does not necessarily imply that individuals are acting
only out of considerations of self-aggrandizement. Different
perceptions of what is in the organizations interest, what is in the
public's interest, or a strong commitment to a specific program, may
also account for "political" or nonsanctioned behavior.
O'Leary's (1994) study of four officials in the Bureau of Reclamation
who, based on strong concerns about the environmental consequences of
a project, consciously undermined official policy, demonstrates how
altruistic motives can lead to political behavior.
We have suggested that the NPR has implications for relations
between actors at multiple levels of the government. Among the most
important, in light of the kind of street-level changes in
bureaucratic operations that NPR proposes to make, are the relations
between groups within agencies. The NPR report highlights the
division between field units and the central office: "Working
toward a quality government means reducing the power of headquarters vis-à-vis
field offices" (NPR, 1993; 71).
Central to the change in culture that the NPR is trying to induce
in the federal government is the encouragement of innovation by
front- line managers in the interest of improving service to
customers. Yet, top NPR officials perceive that that type of
innovation is often thwarted by the control orientation of central
offices. The reinvention lab program was deliberately developed as
means of allowing front-line managers to evade central control. The
Vice President's policy advisor on NPR, Elaine Kamarck, describes
reinvention as "guerrilla warfare," and says
that "reinvention has been consciously structured to avoid
hierarchy."3 The strategy employed to induce innovation on the
front line reflects this mentality and has tended to enhance
organizational competition and conflict.
Over 200 units within the government have been designated
reinvention laboratories. For this analysis, 119 interviews with 87
individuals were conducted at 35 randomly selected reinvention labs
in 15 different departments and agencies. In general, the lab manager
and one or two others such as rank- and-file employees, other line
managers, or members of central staff units were interviewed.
Our research was exploratory in nature. Organizational politics is
only one level of change, but research indicates that in many
organizations it is the most important. We sought to ascertain if
tensions arose in agencies as a result of attempts at innovation, and
where they did arise, along what lines they have developed. We looked
for patterns of conflict by examining such factors as the nature of
the innovations involved and the groups from which cooperation was
requested. Finally, we were interested in the tactics used by the
various players, the lab managers in particular, to overcome
resistance to innovation where it occurred.
The unit of analysis in our study was the specific change that
we labeled "innovation." Any one reinvention lab might have
multiple innovations. For example, we identified three innovations at
the Debt Collection Service in the Department of Education; the
reorganization of workers into teams, the institution of a
power-sharing arrangement with the employee union, and an attempt by
the unit to gain a degree of autonomy from departmental budget
procedures. We identified 48 different innovations at the 35 labs.
The labs and innovation categories are listed in Table 1.
The types of innovations attempted are extremely heterogeneous. Table
2 lists 18 different categories among the 48 innovations identified.
Of particular interest in light of our focus on organizational
politics were innovations for which implementation required the
cooperation of an outside entity. Entities whose cooperation might be
required included staff offices (budget, personnel, IRM, counsel),
central staff agencies (GSA, OMB, and OPM), policy offices, and other
line units in the same agency. Often, the cooperation requested
involved the waiver of an internal regulation or procedure.
Among the 48 innovations examined, there were 32 "requests
for approval." Each request for approval represented a point at
which the lab had to get approval from an outside office to proceed
with the innovation. Whether or not outside permission was required
was largely a function of the innovation. Moving from a hierarchical
to a team structure, for example, is a management decision not
generally requiring the approval of other units. Changing a
procurement process, on the other hand, will usually require approval
of the office responsible for acquisition policy.
Resistance was encountered to 18 of the 32 requests for approval
(Table 1). In some cases, the resistance was attributed by the
sponsoring organization to internal political motives. The reason for
the resistance in these cases was attributed to motivations of, for
example, "power and control," "turf," or
The Field Servicing Office (FSO) in the Animal and Plant
Health Inspection Service (APHIS) in the Department of Agriculture
provides an example of how political issues arise in the context of
change. The 160- person office, located in Minneapolis, has undergone
a fairly major transformation. The office has gone to a team-based
structure, has dramatically reduced cycle times for the procurement
services it provides to agency field offices, and is now marketing
its services to other departments. After becoming a reinvention lab,
the office applied to a unit in the departmental Office of Operations
for waivers from some departmental procurement procedures. According
to the head of the FSO, we went through all the things we wanted to do,
they heard us out, the reasons, the benefits. After we had made our
entire presentation, the head of the group said 'we'd be glad to do
that but if we did we'd lose control.' They never budged; they
wouldn't give us anything.4
Fortunately, the experience was not duplicated elsewhere; both the
GSA and another unit in the Office of Operations cooperated with
FSO's requests for waivers to space acquisition procedures.
The same lab got involved in a power struggle with an APHIS
field office that had also been designated a reinvention lab. The
Gulfport, Mississippi, office of the Plant Protection and Quarantine
unit of APHIS sought authority to provide some of the administrative
services performed by FSO, contending that it would be more
responsive to the state field offices over which it had direct
supervision. The FSO made the case that it could provide the service
more efficiently and more cheaply. The result was a stand-off in
which a few authorities, but no resources, were transferred to the
Gulfport office. The head of the FSO attributed the episode to
"power and control" issues.
The Debt Collection Service in the Department of Education sought
to gain some autonomy from departmental budgetary procedures in order
to respond more quickly to changes in its portfolio of defaulted
loans. It submitted a proposal that was formally included in the NPR
report to obtain a portion of its operating expenses from the stream
of income produced from collections on defaulted loans. The office
would no longer have been subject to the usual rigors of the
budgetary and appropriations process.
Both the departmental budget office and OMB opposed the
change, however. One official not directly involved in the
controversy said, "The administrative areas panicked a little.
If other organizations do the same thing, do you still need the
administrative units?" Said another, "The proposal was
threatening to oversight groups. If the function was pulled out, what
am I going to do regarding my oversight responsibility?"
At the Department of the Interior, a dispute arose over
environmental damage assessment procedures. The Office of Environment
and Compliance (OEC) initiated a proposal to delegate responsibility
for damage assessment for disasters such as oil spills to cross-
agency regional bodies to be supervised by OEC. A panel set up to
review the proposal recommended that the new approach be piloted in
two regions. A representative of the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS),
from which the damage assessment responsibility would be taken,
commented that, "There are a lot of internal politics on this.
OEC is trying to expand its authority. There was only one Fish and
Wildlife person on the panel, there were two representatives from the
Office of Environment and Compliance and representatives from other
bureaus who had never done damage assessment. Their attitude was
"let's outnumber the guys doing damage assessment."
Although attributions of political motives in the context of
these change efforts were rife, no obvious patterns as to when and
where political tensions arose are apparent. Table 1 lists groups
from whom permission was required and where that permission was
received. Our investigation indicated that when and where political
behavior is evidenced, what form it takes, and how effective it is,
is largely contextual; it is a function in large part of individuals
and the tactics employed. Situations that would provoke political
resistance in one instance might not in another, depending on the
individuals involved and the tactics used.
A reinvention lab at the Office of Regulatory Analysis in
APHIS illustrates how the effective use of tactics could mitigate
resistance. The staff there had to persuade some central staff units
to give up their review rights over proposed regulations. They
learned to strike when the issue was hot. The head of the unit,
Richard Kelly, commented that, "The department has intermittent
waves of enthusiasm for reinvention based on award ceremonies or
executive orders from the White House."5 He would place a
request to waive review rights over a category of regulations on
someone's desk soon after such events.
Kelly also describes a "tailoring approach- asking what each
office wanted and how we could make them look good" as key to
the strategy For instance, the lab persuaded the Office of Budget and
Program Analysis, the major responsibility of which is to ensure
policy coherence across the department, that relinquishing its review
rights over APHIS regulations would free up resources for more
significant policy issues.
Some structural configurations made conflict between staff and
line units more likely. The General Services Administration (GSA) has
three major components, one of which is the Public Building Service
(PBS). The head of the PBS in each of GSA's ten regions is an
assistant regional commissioner who reports to the regional
commissioner who in turn reports to the agency's deputy
administrator. The PBS program office in Washington performs a policy
role, establishing common procedures and guidelines for the regional
offices but having no line authority over them. The assistant
regional commissioners are accountable up both lines of authority
creating the potential for conflict.
The reinvention lab at the Denver regional office of GSA
encountered resistance from the PBS program office at the national
headquarters in its attempts to redesign the space procurement
process. One official commented that "The problem is with
central office career civil servants in policy. Their role is in
developing controls for regions. They are against giving the regions
authority to go off on their own." Ultimately, the regional
office had to secure assistance from higher officials, including the
deputy administrator, to overcome the resistance.
The Veterans Benefits Administration has a similar structure, but in
an analogous situation, the head of the reinvention lab at the New
York regional office of the VBA was able to mitigate such resistance
through the use of adept tactics. Before his change effort began, he
visited the heads of each of the program offices at the national
headquarters explaining what he intended to do and providing
assurances that he would not do anything to embarrass either them or
the agency. Both he and the policy unit heads credited this tactic
for the relative lack of conflict that ensued.
Our study provides additional evidence of the centrality of
internal politics to processes of organizational change. Although
many of the innovations we examined did not require the sanction of
outside units, for those that did, issues of power, control, and turf
One feature of the political model is a focus on the individual as
the "basic strategic factor in organizations," as suggested
by Chester Barnard. Much of the management reform literature dwells
on the role of leadership in change processes. The political model
highlights the extent to which all organizational actors wield power
and can act strategically, particularly during periods of change when
structural elements are in flux.
To the extent that the political model places a focus on
individuals, somewhat idiosyncratic factors such as personalities and
tactics are highlighted. One such factor is leadership. The
reinvention lab model, dependent as it is on front-line managers to
initiate innovation, places a premium on leadership. Our findings
suggest that one component of leadership is the capacity to
understand internal political dynamics and to act strategically to
overcome politically based resistance where it might occur.
The political model is also useful in directing attention to
the importance of context in determining the outcomes of change
processes. Apparent from our study is the extreme heterogeneity, not
only among the types of innovations being attempted, but among the
organizational circumstances in which they are introduced. Such
heterogeneity is consistent with a model in which each innovation is
devised in part based on the strategic political calculations of
internal actors. It also makes apparent the difficulty of
generalizing about the probable outcome of such processes.
Finally, the political model directs attention to
deliberate obstruction as a cause of resistance to change. Much of
the change literature ascribes such resistance to a distaste for
behavioral irregularities or to sunk costs. The political model
highlights the extent to which individual actors may wield whatever
sources of influence are available to deter changes they perceive as
detrimental to their interests. In the case of the reinvention labs,
the resistors in many cases were employees in staff offices at the
national headquarters reluctant to free field units from the various
mechanisms of control that provide them with a raison d'etre.
As one in a long line of attempts at governmental reform, the
National Performance Review has been distinguished in part by a
reliance on government employees to propose and implement changes in
how the government operates. Although successes have been achieved,
they have been largely idiosyncratic in nature.6 If NPR is to take
the next step to truly systemic change, an improved understanding of
some of the internal political dynamics of large bureaucratic
organizations is likely to be a prerequisite.
1. We identified seven recommendations that would impact the balance
of power between the two branches; reducing congressionally
mandated reports, providing the President with the authority to
reorganize the executive branch, reducing over itemization of
appropriations accounts, eliminating employment ceilings and floors,
allowing managers to roll over 50 percent of unobligated year-end
balances, eliminating legislative constraints in the Department of
Veterans Affairs, and the line-item veto.
2. Taken from a letter sent to department heads, May 1, 1993;
copy provided by NPR
3. Interview with author, March 30, 1995.
4. Interview with author, February 24, 1995.
5. Interview with the author, November 21, 1994.
6. See for example, the success stories touted in the
status reports issued by NPR
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Author Affiliation: James R Thompson is a doctoral candidate in
public administration at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public
Affairs at Syracuse University. His dissertation, entitled
"Organizational Politics and Innovation in Federal
Agencies," investigates the internal dynamics of organizational
Patricia W Ingraham is a professor of public administration
and political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and
Public Affairs at Syracuse University. She is author of The
Foundation of Merit: Public Service in American Democracy and
co-edited New Paradigms for Government with Barbara Romzek. She is
the author of numerous articles related to change and reform in