He should be congratulated for recognizing that reforming the
management of the sprawling federal bureaucracy deserves to be on
the table when we think about reducing the costs of government.
Many governors also have convened efficiency commissions during
times of deep deficits.
The public management community must now take the Presidents
high-minded statement and convert it into a useful initiative.
Reorganization is but one tool among many to address the problems
that have plagued our federal system for years. It is a metaphor
for the need to re-examine how the federal government designs and
manages its far-flung programs.
Reorganization: The Challenge
It is difficult for reformers to demonstrate the need for change in
management processes and program design. These concepts and ideas
do not fit easily on Twitter messages or the nightly news. In a
world where the urgent often drives out the important, management
reform often doesnt stand a chance.
The case for reorganization is compelling and easily visualized.
Who cant be outraged to hear that there are 17 agencies involved in
food safety, more than 60 job training programs, and a confusing
welter of higher education subsidies that families have difficulty
Organizational chaos is easily presented on PowerPoint slides and
social media sites. There is a certain sense of organizational
aesthetics that informs the case for reorganizationthe governments
org chart should feature clear lines of authority with common
programs and purposes being grouped under the same agency. The
public should be able to understand who to hold responsible.
Reorganization as Serious Reform
Beyond the metaphor, reorganization is a serious strategy to reform
government by shaking up the responsibilities of government
agencies. The premise is that if I change the location of a set of
programs, I can change the outcomes of those programs as well.
Those who would dismiss this as a mere bureaucratic paper exercise
are wrong. The political noise surrounding reorganization proposals
makes evident the high stakes associated with changing
organizational addresses for programs and employees alike.
Reorganization is powerful medicine. There are at least three
questions about the reorganization cure:
1| Which malady is reorganization best suited to solve?
2| What are the costs and are there more cost-effective solutions?
3| What unintended side effects can occur?
Reorganization: The Poison Pill
With 20-20 hindsight, we now know that reorganization is a daunting
venture that presidents, cabinet secretaries, and members of
Congress should enter with caution.
Reorganization is politically expensive. Powerful bureaucracies,
interest groups, and congressional committees stand ready to
protect their turf. A popular president can make the case for
reorganization by pointing out too many agencies, as George W. Bush
did with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), citing
that more than 20 agencies dealt with national threats.
But political capital is scarce, and presidents often prefer to
spend it on substantive policy reforms and more politically
compelling initiatives. To those of us who believe in management,
this is a depressing but familiar scenario indeed. Those who would
dismiss this as a mere bureaucratic paper exercise are wrong.
The following constitute the poison pills of reorganization
No magic bullet. Reorganization guarantees no managerial
or programmatic benefits. The management of DHS has made the
Government Accountability Offices (GAOs) high-risk list of those
areas most vulnerable to fraud, abuse, and mismanagement. GAO found
that the agency has yet to congeal as an integrated department, and
it ranks near the bottom in surveys of federal employee
Glacial change. This points to another pitfall of
reorganizations. They take many years to mature and fulfill their
original promise. The U.S. Department of Defense, created in the
late 1940s, finally became a more integrated department with the
passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986, which strengthened
the departments authority to establish commands and to provide
incentives for personnel to move across the services.
No single right way. Another challenge is the decision
about which dimension or unit of analysis will dominate in
determining the nature of the new organization. Agencies can be
organized by purpose, client, and geography, among many other
And there is no right way to reorganize. If we take veterans job
training programs and reorganize them under a single training unit
in the U.S. Department of Labor, this also disrupts the ability of
the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to weave a web of
interrelated social programs targeted to veterans.
The law of conservation of problems.
For every problem that reorganizations solve, they create new ones.
Each program and bureau that is folded into a new agency, in fact,
has multiple objectives and faces. So, when they are reorganized,
one face is highlighted to the neglect or even exclusion of other
competing goals and values.
For example, lifting transportation security out of FAA and putting
it into DHS helped coordinate homeland security programs, but at
the price of fragmenting federal presence at airports formerly
provided under the FAA umbrella. No reorganization plan will
eliminate fragmentation and overlap. Rather, it is a question of
which kind of overlap and fragmentation we want.
The mirage of cost savings. Reorganizations are often
undertaken with the rationale of saving costs. Ultimately combining
formerly separate programs and bureaus may do just that. But it is
equally, if not more likely, that reorganization will cost more
certainly in the near term.
The inevitability of complexity. Reorganizations simplify
in one sense but add complexity in another. While agencies can be
combined, it is rare for Congress or interest groups to follow
suit. Defense may be the best example where congressional
committees and oversight followed the contours of the broader
agency. DHS, on the other hand, reports as many as 108 panels,
according to NPR.
Vertical Collaboration: The Key to Performance