The need to reduce the federal deficit and improve the efficiency of government programs has increased attention on reorganizing federal agencies and programs as a mechanism to achieve these desired results. Additionally, there is sustained interest both in changing the role and reducing the size of the federal government. The key question of any desire to reorganize government is how to better design the federal government to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Over the last several decades, the executive and legislative branches have expanded federal government agencies and their programs to address new or recurring problems. Another method to address problems has been to reorganize existing agencies and programs and expand their authorities, such as in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.

This expansion has created two significant governance problems. First, there is mission creep (a gradual expansion of an agency's mission beyond its original purpose) among many federal agencies. Second, many national issues are being addressed by multiple agencies and programs responsible for addressing a portion of the larger problem they were created to address. Thus, we are now faced with the problem of overlapping, duplicative, and fragmented programs.

A 2011 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) identified 34 areas where programs were overlapping, duplicative, or fragmented. For example, it identified 82 teacher quality programs administered by 10 agencies; 80 economic development programs administered by four agencies; 56 financial literacy programs administered by more than 20 agencies; and 47 employment and training programs administered by three agencies. This situation has produced ineffective program delivery, competing goals and objectives, and inefficient use of limited federal funds.

Eliminating or Reducing Federal Programs

Eliminating or reducing overlapping, duplicative, and fragmented programs is an important task for the next administration and Congress. One important step toward reducing duplication may be to reorganize these programs by consolidating them. Some of the consolidations can occur within existing departments and agencies, while others can occur through combining existing agencies and their programs.

However, there are several pitfalls to structural reorganizations. For example, they require the expenditure of political capital by both the president and Congress. Both the president and Congress will need to clearly understand and explain how any structural reorganization will actually improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the agencies and their programs.

A reorganization also will require the president's administration and Congress to work closely together and to agree on the goals of any reorganization. However, efforts by the president and Congress to work closely together on any issue in recent years have proven to be elusive. They will need to change their working relationship before any reorganization effort can start.

Additionally, the president and Congress will need to understand that any structural reorganization may produce little or no dollar savings or immediate program efficiencies. Reorganizations usually cost money up front to plan and implement, and cause concern and uncertainty among affected employees. Thus, some additional inefficiency at the start of reorganizations should be expected; reorganizations take time to implement.

Numerous organizations and organizational experts have developed principles or guidelines for future federal government reorganizations (see, for example, the Forum on 21st Century Government Reorganization moderated by Alan Balutis in the summer 2011 issue of this journal). While these principles and guidelines vary in their scope, there are some common elements:

  • clearly identify the problem(s) reorganization will address
  • develop clear, identifiable, and specific goals for reorganization
  • assess the pros and cons of proposed reorganization
  • create a consensus for reorganization among Congress, federal employees, the public, state and local government, and the private sector
  • continuously consult with Congress on reorganization plans and be willing to accept advice and counsel from Congress
  • create two-way communication with affected federal employees, the public, state and local government, and the private sector
  • seek out suggestions, ideas, and support from affected employees
  • develop reorganization implementation plans for both the short term and long term
  • address the "soft" issues, such as organizational culture and tradition.

The common elements provide a good framework for designing and implementing reorganizations. If the next administration decides to structurally reorganize the federal government, a commission should be established to consider proposals. GAO and others view the first Hoover Commission as "the most successful of government restructuring efforts." The key to the success of the first Hoover Commission was that it was bipartisan and its membership included members of the president's administration, members of both houses of Congress, and people from outside of government including members representing the public. It is important to note that this commission took two years to complete its work—from 1947 to 1949. Both the next administration and Congress must be committed to the long-term nature of the process and be willing to accept and act upon the commission's proposals. Complete implementation of reorganizations typically takes three to five years.

There are other drawbacks of structural reorganizations. They typically do not produce savings but actually end up costing money. Costs will occur due to the need to consolidate information systems, change payroll systems, move equipment and furniture, and other administrative tasks.

In additional, the initial phases of planning and implementing reorganizations may cause a decrease in programs' efficiencies because there will be concern among affected employees about changes to their current positions, their reporting levels, and in their work location.

Lessons from the Creation of the Department of Homeland Security

The creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) provides important lessons for the next administration and Congress. The creation of DHS focused on addressing the organizational failures that resulted in 9/11. The primarily failure was the lack of coordination and information sharing (that is, "connecting the dots") among agencies and programs responsible for ensuring the security of the United States from terrorism. The 22 federal agencies that had terrorism security responsibilities were brought together under a newly formed department.

Key lessons learned from the reorganization include:

  • Reorganizations do not always resolve all coordination issues. Not all of the agencies whose missions included homeland security were transferred to DHS. Ensuring effective coordination among agencies with similar missions not included in a reorganization is important.
  • Don't dilute other important missions. The 22 agencies transferred to the new department had other missions in addition to homeland security. There was a need to ensure that these other missions continued and did not become subordinate to their homeland security missions. This did not always happen with the creation of DHS.
  • Congress needs complete and accurate information. At the start of the legislative process to create DHS, even the exact number of employees to be transferred to the new department was not known. In the early stages, the number of employees who would be transferred to DHS ranged from 170,000 to 220,000. It is difficult to know what the human capital issues are and how to address them when you are dealing with a margin of plus or minus 50,000 people.
  • Legacy systems and processes need to be considered. All of the agencies transferred to the new department had their own personnel systems, information systems, payroll systems, and procurement regulations. However, these issues received minimal attention during the legislative process.
  • Don't forget the field offices. All of the agencies being transferred to DHS had field offices, with people and facilities scattered throughout the United States. However, there was little discussion regarding the impact the reorganization would have on these offices. Key questions such as where the offices were located and whether some could be eliminated or merged were not discussed.

The Value of Virtual Reorganizations

Developing interagency councils to coordinate cross-cutting programs can supplement a more traditional reorganization. This has been called a "virtual" reorganization, and was discussed in the Forum on 21st Century Government Reorganization in the summer 2011 issue of this journal. One major advantage is that it can be implemented fairly quickly through the creation of interagency councils and the establishment of broad national goals. Interagency councils can be an important mechanism for bringing overlapping, duplicative, and fragmented programs together under a specific framework.

The first step in the process is for the next administration to consult and reach agreement with the Congress on the specific broad national goals to be addressed. The interests of both the administration and the Congress must be achieved in this process. Once the agreements are reached on the broad national goals, the president should require the creation of interagency councils focused on these broad national goals and designate on agency head to chair each council. The councils can use the Government Performance and Results Act Modernization Act of 2010's requirement for the development of cross-cutting federal priority goals as a tool to improve coordination and effectiveness among similar programs.

However, creating interagency councils focused on broad national goals may not be sufficient. Additional tools may be necessary to adequately implement this virtual reorganization. One such tool is national strategies. Over the last 10 years, the federal government has used numerous national strategies to focus on significant issues and bring a variety of organizations together to work collaboratively. Some of these include the National Strategy for Homeland Security, National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace, National Strategy for Financial Literacy, and National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza. The use of national strategies can serve as an important organizing method and accountability tool for multiple agencies working on broad national goals.

In addition, accountability and transparency are vital to ensure the successful implementation of a virtual reorganization. Thus, the interagency councils should annually report to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Performance Improvement Council on their performance regarding the implementation of the broad national goals and the national strategy for which they are responsible. Also, the interagency councils should be provided the authority to make recommendations to OMB on the budget requests of their members' programs. This authority would help ensure that the interagency councils focus on the efficient and effective use of the funds for these programs and their efforts to address broad national goals.

Congress also will need to reassess how it is organized and operates. Much like the overlapping, duplicative, and fragmented programs, Congress and its current committee structure reflects the nature of these programs. In addition to possibly eliminating some of its committees or subcommittees, Congress should consider structuring oversight and appropriation hearings around the agreed-upon broad national goals.

Focus More on Results, Less on Size

The use of structural reorganizations and virtual reorganizations should not be viewed as a choice of one over the other. Both types of reorganizations should be used to deliver federal programs more efficiently and effectively and to produce better results for the American people.

The next administration and Congress should use both steps to help eliminate or reduce the overlap, duplication, and fragmentation among federal programs and agencies. One of the most important factors leading to the success of either type of reorganization is that the next administration and Congress need to work more closely together to determine the value of each type of reorganization, reach agreement on reorganization goals and broad national goals, and focus more on producing positive results and less on reducing the size of government.