Over Your Shoulder

Oversight is a necessary evil, but only when it helps managers do their jobs better.

In 1916, a bit of public administration history was made. The Bureau of Efficiency was born. It was the first of many efforts by presidents and Congress to perfect the bumbling bureaucracy-most recently President Clinton's National Partnership for Reinventing Government and the Bush administration's President's Management Agenda.

A century ago, the progressive era of government reform was in full swing. Civil service reform had brought merit-based hiring to the federal ranks. Senators were forced to face voters directly. The government had been expanded to cover emerging missions such as conservation and business regulation.

The Efficiency Bureau embodied many of the age's central tenets, including the idea that there was one best way to manage organizations. It employed a team of analysts who descended upon managers to identify what they were doing wrong and to propose the path to maximum effectiveness. Among the bureau's achievements was the creation of the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 1930 to consolidate control over the government's then-autonomous, and poorly run, penitentiaries.

Congress eliminated the Efficiency Bureau in 1933, but its mission lives on-only now in a host of organizations in both the executive and legislative branches. The bureau's functions officially were transferred to what is now known as the Office of Management and Budget, the White House outfit that tells government managers what to do.

In addition, every federal agency has centralized management and budget offices that tell managers what they're doing wrong. To make sure those groups don't miss anything, every agency also has an inspector general's office to conduct audits and investigations. Some agencies have even more layers of oversight. Others hire management consultants to perform critiques. And, of course, Congress has its own teams-the staffs of the oversight committees and the Government Accountability Office-to wag their fingers at managers.

But one can certainly sympathize with the federal manager who feels overwhelmed with oversight. Overseers themselves are sometimes unhelpful or ineffective, nitpicking or pointing out problems that don't exist.

If all these extra eyes actually help managers do their jobs better, then the oversight is worth the effort.

An interesting case in point is the General Services Administration, where inspector general auditors have been looking at proposed contract deals before they're awarded. Under such pre-award reviews, the auditors compare the prices that contractors are offering the government to the prices the contractors offer other customers. The auditors frequently discover that the contractors are not offering the government the best possible deal.

GSA Inspector General Brian D. Miller recently reported that his auditors were identifying $800 million in savings a year during pre-award reviews. By contrast, auditors conducting reviews after the fact have identified an average of $36 million a year that could have been saved. The earlier reviews obviously have the advantage of not only offering more bang for the buck, but of helping managers avoid making costly mistakes in the first place.

And they follow in a tradition that was begun nearly a century ago-the endless search for the best deal for the tax-paying public.

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.

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