That debate has been so muted that most people would be hard-pressed to say how the major party candidates — President Bush and Sen. John Kerry — differ with respect to civil service reform, outsourcing or e-government.
Some knowledgeable observers say there is relatively little difference between the two candidates' opinions on these issues.
"The difference between the two is real, but it's a lot smaller than the difference between the two in other policy areas," said John Donahue, a political appointee to the Labor Department under the Clinton administration who now teaches at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
Donahue, like many others, based his analysis on an assumption that if elected, Kerry would mirror many of the management issues supported during the Clinton years under the broad slogan "Reinventing Government." Not surprisingly, Kerry campaign officials are relying on veterans of the Clinton presidency to help formulate his positions on many issues. Analysts are extrapolating from Clinton's record because of the lack of information on Kerry's position on federal management. Aside from one brief policy paper, government management efficiency and effectiveness do not appear as major issues in Democrats' campaign materials nor did they have a place in the platform adopted at the Democratic National Convention in July.
As for Kerry's past performance, his record does not provide a clue about how he'd run the government. The nitty-gritty of management has never been one of his issues in the Senate, although he has been a sharp critic when government power has run amok such as during the Iran-Contra scandal.
"I don't think we know an awful lot based on his congressional record about Kerry's views on management," said Philip Joyce, associate professor of public policy and public administration at George Washington University. "He's a little more of a blank slate on management than, say, Vice President [Al] Gore would have been."
Bush's campaign team also is saying little about management, but officials at the Office of Management and Budget have discussed plans for extending the administration's management initiatives into a second term. The Bush administration also has a three-and-a-half-year record of managing the government during which officials implemented a tough management agenda that ties performance to budgets. And Bush is the first president to hold a master's in business administration.
"There's a huge, huge difference on the rhetorical level" between the Republicans and Democrats, Donahue said. "But in terms of what they're actually doing, you know, it's not that big a difference."
Joyce expressed similar views. "I don't actually think that there is a substantial difference between what President Bush has done as president, in terms of how his management agenda has affected feds, vs. how a [Democratic] administration would have functioned," he said.
Nevertheless, if re-elected, Bush officials would likely pursue congressional support for the President's Management Agenda, said Mike Franc, vice president of government relations at the Heritage Foundation.
"The president has been trying to force accountability into the system," Franc said. "This initial step forces accountability onto programs. There has to be accountability from Congress not just to appropriate money. The President's Management Agenda, to be effective, has to be alive and well at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue."
Kerry, however, is outspoken on one Bush agenda item — competitive sourcing — Joyce said, "partly for reasons of philosophy and partly for reasons of politics."
The competitive sourcing program encourages agencies to hire contractors for certain kinds of work if the contract will reduce costs. The program has existed for many years, but the Bush administration has pushed agencies to undertake more competitions for work. Donahue, however, noted that the actual loss of federal jobs to contract workers through competitive sourcing has not increased much while Bush has been in office.
Several observers said Republicans generally have more faith in the private sector, while Democrats count on the support of the public employee unions. Kerry has been endorsed by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and other major unions.
"Kerry has stood against the wholesale dismantling of the federal government — through contracting out and underfunding — desired by his opponent," said John Gage, president of AFGE, which represents 600,000 federal workers.
The Democrat is proposing to reduce the number of contract employees in the federal government by 100,000 during the next decade, a move that would reduce federal spending by $5 billion during that period, according to a campaign policy paper. Officials with the Kerry/ Edwards campaign did not respond to a question about how the work done by the contractors would be accomplished.
Todd La Porte, associate professor of public policy at George Mason University, said the cost of contractors is not the only issue. "There are serious problems that are emerging now with accountability and with the ability to execute government policy in ways that are consistent with American objectives," he said, citing reconstruction efforts in Iraq.
Americans have a pro-business attitude, he said, "so when Halliburton [Corp.] comes along and says, 'We can do it for you under contract,' people say, 'Yes, they probably are the best. They probably are better than government people are.'" But oversight of contractors has been spotty, and more problems are surfacing, he said.
Another area in which Kerry is challenging Bush's record is the increase in executive-level federal managers. Bush pledged during his first presidential campaign to cut 40,000 middle management jobs from the government, but administration officials now say they are more focused on results than on dictating precisely how each agency should be structured and managed.
Joyce said the Bush team has gone further than its predecessor in rewarding good program performance with more budget authority or flexibility. The attention paid to federal management in the Bush administration has come as a surprise to some, and Joyce said he would not look for as much activism in a Kerry administration.
Government intervention in corporate misbehavior such as the Enron case was one way for the public sector to demonstrate its value to the nation, but "that issue has been overtaken by the war," La Porte said. "Campaigns reduce things to simple sound bytes, and a pro-public- sector message is very difficult to distill into a sound byte,"
Joyce agreed, saying, "Management is not a sexy issue."