Government Reorganization 2016: No Magic Wand

Bipartisan legislation was introduced last year to create a board that would make recommendations to “transform” government. With public trust in government at an all-time low, is there an appetite to act?

The recent history on government reorganization efforts hasn’t been too good.  President Obama in his 2012 State of the Union offered a fairly mild proposal to reorganize the federal government’s trade functions.  This was a Republican proposal from the 1990s, but the only bipartisan response it generated was opposition to any large-scale reorganization.  Reorganization Chart by Sheelamohan

Legislative Proposals in the Hopper.  Is there a need to rethink the federal government’s organization and operations?  Probably yes, given the reports regularly issued by the Government Accountability Office on program duplication and overlap.  An advocacy group, the Government Transformation Initiative, has been promoting bipartisan legislation.

The Senate version of the bill proposes a seven-member bipartisan board which would produce recommendations in a year, and monitor and propose more over the six-year lifespan of the board.  There would be expedited procedures for congressional consideration of any legislative proposals it offers.

Former Comptroller General David Walker is a strong supporter of this initiative. Steve Goodrich, one of the leaders in this initiative, said in a recent interview that this legislation would change how agencies do business.

However, the bigger question may be timing.  Could it pass?  Could it get implemented? I did a series of blog posts examining past government reorganizations, shortly after the Obama 2012 initiative was proposed for trade reorganization.  At the time, I was cautiously optimistic, noting: “the climate today is different.”   Well, in the end it wasn’t.

Given the current political mood, is this a better point at which to rethink government operations?  That may depend on how the presidential election campaign turn out in coming months. So far, the focus has been on policy issues, not government organization or management.

As I noted in earlier blog posts, history hasn’t been kind to government reorganization and reform proposals.  But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be attempted!

Work-Arounds Can Work. It isn’t that good ideas are lacking.  The challenge is getting action on them.  There is no magic wand – at least not since Congress allowed the President’s reorganization authority to lapse. But there are some work-arounds.

One alternative approach that has been effective is to undertake incremental administrative improvements.  While not as politically dramatic as sweeping reorganizations, there has been steady progress in recent years using this approach, mainly in cross-agency efforts.  For example, the Departments of Commerce and Labor have jointly supported economic development activities in distressed communities by joining Commerce’s business investment and Labor’s job training initiatives into an integrated, ground-level development strategy.  In a way, this is using creative flexibility to create “virtual” agencies that are organized around the customer, not around administrative processes.  Some call these “one stops” or “No Wrong Door” approaches.  Technology oftentimes make these approaches work.

In addition, the cross-agency priority goals put into law several years ago have recently received congressional support via a $15 million fund (p. 581) that provides the ability for the goal leaders to create common web-based platforms and joint action offices.  These less-direct approaches for getting government to work may be more time-consuming and complex, but they can work when leaders and agencies are willing to work together.

The open question about using the work-around approach is: will it make it hard for the public to understand how their government is working and who is accountable when things go wrong?  Does it reduce trust and the sense of democratic legitimacy?  These aren’t readily answerable questions, but in the longer term, attempting to address them may provide the impetus to reorganize rather than to continue taking incremental steps.  It is just that without a magic wand, this may not be any time soon!

IBM Center for The Business of Government

Graphic credit:  Courtesy of Sheelamohan via

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Mark Hammer

Good questions.
As always, I go back to Larry Terry’s stance that a public bureaucracy depends as much on its perceived authoritativeness to get things done, as on its legal authorities. And when it wanders from its mandate, or is perceived to be doing so, that can undermine its perceived authoritativeness.
So, although structural changes may facilitate efficiency of process, one has to consider if what makes processes efficient might conceivably get in the way of the buy-in of some stakeholders. Not necessarily for the specific initiatives that prompted the restructuring, but for other things down the line. Why should I, as citizen, trust the judgment of agency X on such and such a matter? What makes them such experts and sages, and what the dickens do they actually DO?
In short, there is change-management to contend with within the organizations themselves, and change management to contend with when it comes to their relationship with external stakeholders.