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Journal of Policy History 13.4 (2001) 405-428

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The Impact of Reinventing Government on State and Federal Parks

William Lowry


Over the last dozen years of the twentieth century, one major change affecting many American public policies consists of increased demands for efficiency. As a result, the demands on bureaucratic agencies responsible for delivery of public goods and services are daunting. Political authorities prescribe economic goals of efficiency and self-sufficiency for agencies while not reducing demands for attainment of political goals like efficacy and equity. Public officials have used techniques encouraging efficient behavior such as downsizing and evaluation through performance-based standards to make government more streamlined while still being effective. Have these changes occurred in different ways at different levels of the federal system? How can we explain those differences? Does the impact on the delivered goods and services vary significantly by level of government?

In this article, I use a functional theory of federalism to address those questions. This theory suggests that different types of policies are most effectively implemented at different levels of government. 1 In short, governments work best when developmental policies (the provision and maintenance of services) are delegated to state governments and redistributive policies (the reallocation of resources) are left at the federal level. Empirical analyses suggest that even when considering the same policy area, agencies operating at different levels of the federal system will pursue their own tendencies that are consistent with the functional theory. Thus, implementation of the same policy at different levels will produce an emphasis on developmental potential at the state level and redistributive priorities at the national level. 2

I use this theoretical framework to consider the impact of recent demands for greater economic efficiency on the management of parks at both state and federal levels of government. I argue that, consistent with theoretical predictions, managers of state and national [End Page 405] parks have responded to recent demands for greater efficiency and self-sufficiency in different ways. Further, those differences have a significant effect on the management of these public lands. Both national and state park managers have been increasingly forced to function with fewer public resources. Particularly at the state level, this necessity has led to greater emphasis on resort-type recreation and less on protection of natural resources.

The article is organized in three sections. The first section discusses the recent demands for greater efficiency and corresponding theoretical expectations regarding implementation in a federal system. The second section assesses the functional theory of federalism in the empirical context of state and national parks. The third section provides some discussion and conclusions.

Theoretical Expectations

The overriding principle of much public policy during the closing years of the twentieth century has been efficiency. This is not a new phenomenon, but in recent years political authorities have demanded the provision of more goods and services at less cost to society. Have such demands produced different impacts at different levels of the federal system?

The Emphasis on Efficiency

An emphasis on economic goals of efficiency and self-sufficiency has been increasingly apparent in American public policy over the last two decades, especially in the 1990s. While reformers and commissions have frequently attempted to improve government performance by making it more efficient, the 1990s witnessed a plethora of such efforts. 3 These efforts to achieve more efficient public-sector behavior have often been part of larger programs described under the heading of "reinventing government." Forums for such efforts range from best-selling books to congressional hearings. 4 Through Vice President Gore, the Clinton administration released its own National Performance Review (NPR) on reinvention of government in 1993. 5

The specific tools proposed within different attempts at improving public policy vary, but many of the principles are consistent. These include decentralization of decision-making, streamlining of [End Page 406] bureaucracy, the use of market mechanisms, and the matching of resources to results. When the focus is on public policy, the goal of efficiency is key. As Vice President Gore concluded in the NPR, "Effective, entrepreneurial governments...


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pp. 405-428
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