Life after Salmon: first steps at government reorganization

On Sunday, Tom Shoop of GovExec’s Fedblog reported that President Obama’s Chief Performance Officer, Jeffrey Zients, will lead the government reorganization effort announced during last week’s State of the Union address.

I don’t know about you, but I was ecstatic to see Civil Service reform get a high-profile nod during the address. (Full disclosure: I started to run around my living room screaming, “I can’t believe he’s talking about this!” because I was so excited/surprised). Not because I’m a federal workforce hater, but because there’s so much potential to improve government performance with management reform, I think. I hate to leave that statement hanging without evidence, but let’s assume it for now. It’s the topic for a different post, I suppose.

Shoop goes on to report that the first order of business is the reorganization of trade and export functions. I think that is on point, given that “winning the future” seems to be at the top of the White House’s agenda for the duration of the President’s first term. But to me, this also raises a few questions about the upcoming reorganization:

1) What is the underlying strategy? (It’s not clear from the reported first steps)

2) How far will it go? (This is also not clear from the reported first steps)

What is the underlying strategy?

Right now, our government is organized by policy area, in a sense. We have a Department of Agriculture which administers Ag policy. We have a Transportation Department which addresses transportation concerns. Agencies that fall outside the purview of the major departments (e.g. NASA, Federal Communications Commission) are also centered around a policy area or function.

But there could be another approach, organizing the government based on strategic priorities. Let me explain, by using a hypothetical. Let’s say that we brainstormed a list of all the responsibilities of the Federal Government. In other words, let’s say that we defined the mission of government from top to bottom. We’d probably have some of the following strategic priorities on our list, and several more:

-Advancing economic competitiveness

-Defending our territory

-Maintaining a healthy citizenry

-Preserving a competitive market and protecting consumers

If we organized government around these strategic priorities, the structure of departments and agencies would probably look a lot different than it does now. For example, agencies focusing on healthcare provision would probably fall under the same reporting structure as those agencies promoting access to healthy foods in cities. Agencies regulating food safety might under the same roof as those regulating the financial system, depending the strategic priorities we came up with*.

It’s an interesting thought experiment, for more reasons than one. First it’s kind of interesting to see which agencies can “fit” into the same department. More than that though, organizing our government in terms of strategic priorities forces us, as a government and a nation, to define what the “mission of government” should be and measure our progress. With more clarity about government’s exact mission, we could probably also determine how to best allocate government’s resources because we could stack programs up against government’s strategic priorities. If they’re in line, we fund them. If they aren’t we’d allocate resources elsewhere.

Which get’s me back to the question: what’s the underlying strategy of this reorganization? Will it stick with the tried and true structure of government departments and trim up the fringe, or, will Zients fundamentally change the way government is organized?

I’m not saying either is correct (yet, but stay tuned…I don’t want to poison the well of this discussion) or that either is easy. I am saying that it’s a question worth asking at the start of the process. It would also be a great PhD dissertation…I suppose the President (and probably may others) beat me to it though, haha.

How far will it go?

I also wonder, how far this reorganization will go? Will it affect every agency and sub-agency? Will it leave DoD and DHS alone? What about agencies that have internal customers, like OPM and GSA?

Will it also put management practices and assumptions about government operations (e.g. the General Schedule, inter-agency collaboration/resource sharing) on the table? Being optimistic, it’s a ripe time to put everything on the table…especially considering that the [ominious] balance-the-budget-and-pay-down-the-debt talk creates a burning platform for civil service reform. I also know that there’s a limit to the amount of change which can be managed successfully…despite how well these issues hang together.

I also have great hope this process – if I was Jeffrey Zients right now, I don’t think I could be more excited, honored and terrified…all at the same time. This process could get ugly if the administration wants to get ambitious about its reform agenda. Unions will probably drop some elbows as will anti-government hacks. There will probably be a lot of infighting. But at the end of the day, I agree that our government isn’t in the best position to succeed to “win the future”. We need to put it in that position.

This issue is not bipartisan either, it’s non-partisan…the need to have a highly-effective government transcends politics. I’m excited for it, even though this is one of the most complicated, difficult and abstract issues in government today…in my humble opinion.

I hope some folks read through, I’d love to hear about other angles on this issue and if any serious work has been done on this topic. I’ve had a hard time finding other nerds about this…searching for “reorganize government strategic priorities” isn’t exactly a fruitful Google Search string, haha.


*There’s a good whitepaper which pokes at this discussion, here. I think there are many ways to go about having a public dialogue/process for defining government’s strategic priorities, but again, that’s a topic for another blog post, PhD topic and/or not-for-profit organization.

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