Management Matters Management MattersManagement Matters
Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Easy Target


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.

Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.