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Utility overhauler

Sports nut Mary Beth Richards uses a fitting baseball analogy to characterize her dozen job changes during a 17-year career at the FCC. "I'm like a utility infielder," she says. "Put me where you need me. I haven't had a job I haven't liked."

Like a true all-around player, Richards already has experience at her new position. Last month, she was named special counsel to head the FCC's reform effort, the first major initiative launched by new Chairman Michael Powell. Her new task should have a familiar feel: She represented the FCC at the Clinton administration's Commission for Reinventing Government. That effort resulted in the 1996 creation of the Wireless and International Bureaus to help the agency grapple with the rise of mobile and satellite communications.

Although that FCC reform did eliminate some major regulations, Capitol Hill Republicans, if not Powell himself, have made it clear that the current reform had better streamline the agency further.

For now, though, Richards won't say where her effort is headed and hints that a concrete plan is at least months away. "We are at the beginning of the process and expect it to go on for a while."

The widespread expectation is that the FCC will try to reorganize around its various functions along the lines of the Enforcement and Consumer Information Bureaus, created in 1999. Traditional industry offices such as the cable, telephone and mass-media bureaus could be eliminated or merged.

"We're taking stock of where we are, how we can be more efficient and reflect better the industry and services we provide to the public," she says, stressing that the reorganization will be more than window dressing.

Richards also challenges any assumption that the previous reinventing-government initiative did little to streamline agency regulation. She notes that 21 of 30 proposals her office recommended were included in the 1996 Telecommunications Act, most notably the power to "forbear," or decline to impose existing regulations if government intervention isn't needed to protect the public interest. Also included: streamlining broadcast-license renewal and extending broadcast-license terms to eight years.

That success gave Powell an easy choice for heading his reorganization drive. "Her extensive knowledge of the workings and failings of the commission are unparalleled," he says. "She has my unflinching confidence."

Former FCC Chairman William Kennard isn't surprised that Powell tapped Richards for the reorganization effort. "Every chairman discovers her management wizardry," says Kennard, who relied on her and Managing Director Rene Licht during the creation of the enforcement and consumer bureaus and the move to new headquarters. She would explain how change would affect people and would work to minimize their discomfort and feelings of uncertainty, he notes.

Richards' varied background at the FCC also contributed to her latest posting. She has held staff jobs in the common carrier bureau and the precursor to the wireless bureau, learning about drafting regulations, and then spent five years in enforcement-related jobs.

In 1997, she joined the managing director's office-which handles personnel matters, budgeting and finance, and industry filing procedures-where she got a broad picture of how the the agency is administered.

According to Richards, a top-to-bottom overhaul of the agency is long overdue, if only to rethink an organizational structure that was established during the Depression-era dawn of the telecommunications industry. "My job," she explains, "is to plan for what's around the next corner."