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Should Government Reorganize Itself? (Part III)

The political winds are blowing favorably for government reorganization for the first time since Jimmy Carter’s efforts in the 1970s. As a result, the conversation on government reorganization is shifting from “should we” to “how do we” reorganize. What are some of the lessons from past efforts?

At one point, the advice was: don’t do it head-on. . . . Vice President Gore’s directions to his reinventing government team in the 1990s were: “don’t move boxes, fix what’s inside them.” He felt that it was so difficult to get congressional support for a major structural reorganization, and that it would take so long to show results that it was not worth the effort. So his reinventing government initiative focused on process rather than structure. In fact, he promoted the idea of “virtual agencies” long before the technology existed to make that approach feasible.

In the years since, the Government Accountability Office has called for a “fundamental reexamination” of how government is organized, and this has been reflecting in President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address. But in practice, he is taking a more targeted approach, focusing initially on improving the federal government’s role in trade and exports. (His efforts so far have encompassed both structural and virtual approaches, but more on that in a future blog post.)

Good Government Advocates on Reorganization

The renewed focus on reorganization has resulted in an outpouring of advice from knowledgeable practitioners who have been through the experience.

Hannah Sistare, former executive director of the National Commission on Public Service as well as the former Senate staff director for the Governmental Affairs Committee, wrote an IBM Center report several years ago, presaging the issue: Government Reorganization: Strategies and Tools to Get It Done. Her report explores four different strategies for reorganization, including the use of:

  • congressionally-chartered commissions
  • presidential reorganization authority
  • executive branch reorganization staff to develop and implement initiatives
  • congressional initiatives

Harrison Wellford, along with several colleagues at the Center for American Progress, offered Six Lessons from the 1970s. Wellford was one of President Carter’s leads on government reorganization efforts. A key observation? “Reorganizing government agencies is not for the faint of heart.” The key lessons?

  • Be crystal clear about reorganization’s goals. The more concrete and policy-related the better.
  • Don’t underestimate the political capital required of the president. He must also be prepared to invest his personal time to achieve a successful reorganization.
  • Be ready for the war within. The president must spend as much time selling his plan internally as he does to outside groups. Cabinet members and agency heads care deeply about turf and will fight hard to defend it.
  • Be ready for the war on the Hill. Reorganizations can only be enacted by Congress. Resistance is vehement especially among lawmakers whose power base is threatened
  • as committee boundaries change.
  • Enlist external allies and understand foes. Key trade organizations, interest groups,
  • governors, and mayors with a stake must be identified and brought on board, to preempt opposition to the president’s plan.
  • Reorganization requires organization. There is more to reorganization than the politics. They are major organizational change projects and require a skilled team to lead them.

Alan Balutis, the former senior career executive for management and budget at the Commerce Department (which faced perennial demands for reorganization), organized a special issue of The Public Manager on the topic of government reorganization. In that issue, he warns of the “mirage of cost savings” that proponents oftentimes associate with reorganizing. He also highlights the importance of gaining career staff.

Balutis also reminds us that Luther Gulick’s four classic reorganization principles still hold true: purpose, process, clientele, and place. And that you can focus a reorganization initiative around one of these principles, but not all four.

Dwight Ink authored a piece for the special issue of The Public Manager. He served as the lead for many of President Nixon’s reorganization efforts. He emphasized the importance of timing, planning, and creating effective implementation strategies (one of my favorite GAO report titles is from 1981, examining President Carter’s reorganization efforts, entitled: Implementation: The Missing Link in Planning Reorganizations).

Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, testified before a House committee on the topic of reorganization and he offered 25 questions that congressional oversight committees should ask when presented a reorganization plan by the president. These questions include:

1. What is the mission(s) of the new entities that will result from this reorganization?

2. What problems are we trying to solve with this reorganization?

3. What other options have been considered to solve these problems?

. . . All the way to:

25. What steps will be taken to ensure continuity in the management and implementation of this reorganization from one presidential administration to the next?

. . . . So what should be the level of effort devoted to structural reorganization vs. virtual reorganization? That will be the focus of my next blog post.

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Footnote: If you’re really interested in this topic, the academic literature on government reorganization is comprehensive:

Graphic Credit: Rubriks.com

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Mark Forman

very thoughtful, as always, John. I think that too many people look at the government as a group of Departments and agencies, while the problems are at the program level. quite simply, poor performing programs in one agency are defended by that agency, while redundant programs are created at DIFFERENT Departments or Agencies to fill-in the performance gaps. As GAO points out, programs have now so overlapping and redundant, with constituencies that are tied to the policy desire versus actual performance, that a cut in any program –even the poor performers — are defended against cuts. This takes money away from more effective approaches, rather than facilitating a rationalization of resources with results. Departmental re-org is a waste of time. The key need is cross department rationalization of ineffective and effective programs.

John Kamensky

Thanks, Mark. The new GPRA law requires OMB to work with agencies to develop an inventory of all programs in the government, so that should be an initial step toward your recommended rationalization. The challenge, though, will be to define what we mean by “program.” Is Air Traffic Control a program or a service? Is the F-35 jet fighter a program or a capability? Is patent approval a program or a process? Is NIH a program, or is it a grant-making activity? Do the definitions matter? I think that’s where the discussion may focus. . . . But should the effort focus on programs in the first place, or the intended outcomes, and organize or inventory resources (including programs) around the outcome as the unit of analysis instead of trying to analyze the individual programs?