With Commerce Secretary Gary Locke headed for a new job as ambassador to China, there was buzz in DC about what’s next for Commerce – the agency expected to be the center of a competitiveness focused reorganization. I listened to a vastly experienced cast of candid public servants – many who are now formers – at the National Academy of Public Administration event on Government Reorganization today. A key takeaway regarding the administration reorganization plan is, First, do no harm.

Alan Balutis, Director and Distinguished Fellow of the Cisco –Business Solutions Group who spent years at Commerce noted, public managers have to be good surgeons, operating after a proper diagnosis. This is not something you do multiples times. You have to get it right.

In surgery as in government, “Disruption has a huge cost,” warned Beryl Radin, author of the Public Management and Change series. “The illusion of cost savings evaporates in a minute.” (To Mark Hammer, who posted earlier on GovLoop, it’s not really like dieting. A full-scale reorganization sounds more like preparing for a marathon of fasting.)

Bob Tobias, Director of Public Sector Education at American University and a veteran of IRS reform, had even more practical advice on what action to take first: Define your goal – tell us, what is competitiveness? Include your people – that’s all the people who will be impacted in Congress, agency employees, unions, stakeholders, other representatives of the executive branch.

Dwight Ink, President Emeritus of the Institute of Public Administration, said good leaders are critical. “If you don’t have good people, it doesn’t make any difference” what organizational structure you have. He fondly remembered a a few successes involving career servants who worked with congressional staff to achieve new goals in decades past.

It’s possible that government reorganization is not the best approach to competitiveness leadership. Jim Locher, President and CEO of the Project on National Security Reform, mentioned that appointing a chief of mission might be a good route, provides there’s the support of an expert interagency task force. The Drug Czar had both a symbolic and actual impact.

When it comes to getting it done at this stage in the political calendar, merely using GPRA to evaluate programs may be a good route too, said Robert Shea of Grant Thornton LLP.

“We worship the god of efficiency” to our detriment, Radin said, forgetting politics, effectiveness, equity, and federalism. Sometimes, Radin offered, we can learn from middle managers or state managers about making do with different funding streams, conflicting expectations and tradeoffs.

In The Public Manager, we’ll continue the discussion of 21st Century government – offering the best tools and approaches – things like GPRA – and a few more lessons from past efforts.