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President Clinton, a Democrat, did it. So did President Bush, a Republican. Now President-elect Barack Obama has done it.

What did all three do? They gave middle managers the rhetorical ax.

Either during his campaign or in office, each promised to slash the bureaucracy's middle ranks. Clinton vowed to halve the management ranks, from one manager for every seven employees to one manager for every 15 employees. Bush in his 2000 campaign promised to cut 40,000 management jobs. Obama's campaign issued such a pledge, too. "In many areas of the federal government there is too much Washington bureaucracy -- too many layers of managers, and too much paperwork that does not contribute directly to improving the lives of the American people," Obama's management agenda states. "Barack Obama will thin the ranks of Washington middle managers, freeing up resources both for deficit reduction and for increasing the number of front-line workers."

In essence, for the past 16 years, the federal government's middle managers have been walking around with targets on their backs. Those targets are still there.

Every presidential candidate in the past five elections has felt compelled to offer proposals to increase efficiency in the federal government. Why? For starters, cutting government waste is a campaign must. Everyone is for reducing wasteful Washington spending -- particularly independent voters who often play the role of the critical swing bloc that determines elections. Second, who can argue with cutting wasteful layers of middle managers? People understand the need for front-line supervisors and for top-level executives. But who likes middle managers? What are those guys in the middle doing but gumming up the works? They're just a bunch of paper-pushing, busy-work-creating, red-tape-dishing bureaucrats, right?

Maybe not. Those managers turn out to be less dispensable in reality than on the campaign trail. Clinton's promise to halve the management ranks fell short. In many agencies, management cuts never materialized. In others, managers simply were reclassified as "team leaders," allowing agencies to comply with supervisory ratio reduction goals without actually eliminating supervisors. Similarly, Bush's campaign promise quickly dissipated. The White House backed away from the numerical goal and ultimately avoided a governmentwide effort to cut management positions.

Some might argue that middle managers indeed are a crafty lot who used their wily, bureaucratic ways to ensure other employees were downsized or their duties were outsourced while they kept their cushy jobs.

Others might argue that middle managers perform necessary functions -- supporting and monitoring front-line operations; running interference and providing information to top executives; and making sure myriad laws, rules and regulations governing federal actions are adhered to.

Either way, they face another test. In the next few years, middle managers again will find out if they can avoid the real ax after getting chopped by a rhetorical one.

 

Brian Friel is founder of One Nation Analytics, an independent research, analytics and consulting firm for the federal market.

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