Department of the Future

Can a systemwide shuffling help us 'win the future?'

Perhaps reflecting the economic malaise that still afflicts many Americans, President Obama has taken to saying that government must help us "win the future." This newly minted cliché combines with an older bromide-"when in doubt, reorganize"-to produce the notion that government might need a Department of Competitiveness.

To win, after all, one must compete. And we are not exactly winning the future now. We aren't educating the next generation as well as other nations. We are losing high-value manufacturing jobs at a rapid rate. We face huge fiscal deficits that discourage federal, state and local governments from making investments that could help us grow. Unemployment remains high. There's no political consensus about what we should do to improve things. Other nations, like Germany, are doing better.

Reorganization is a serious enough idea to have made it into President Obama's State of the Union message this year. "In the coming months," he said, "my administration will develop a proposal to merge, consolidate and reorganize the federal government in a way that best serves the goal of a more competitive America." On Jan. 30, a White House blog post announced: "Jeff Zients Will Lead Reorganization of Federal Government." Zients, the Office of Management and Budget's deputy director for management, is working with White House aide Lisa Brown to define the effort.

So reorganization, usually dismissed as interesting only to public administration theorists, has clambered onto the president's agenda. And the idea does have the support of influential people. When Paul Volcker chaired the National Commission on the Public Service in 2003, he found a federal civil service "at sea in an archipelago of agencies and departments that have grown without logical structure, deterring intelligent policymaking." The Volcker commission strongly recommended reorganization. In the past few months, the Center for American Progress, led by former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, has published reports advocating reorganization around the competitiveness theme. And the National Academy of Public Administration (on whose board I serve) has convened expert panels to examine prospects for effective reorganization.

It's possible that American business leaders might get behind the idea as well. It would resonate, for instance, with Andrew N. Liveris, chairman and chief executive officer of The Dow Chemical Co., author of a new book titled Make It in America (John Wiley & Sons, 2011). Liveris describes what he sees as crisis in the American manufacturing sector, which now accounts for just 11.5 percent of gross domestic product. In the past decade alone, he reports, companies closed 42,000 factories in this country at the cost of 5.5 million manufacturing jobs. Without manufacturing, he writes, innovation will languish as researchers move abroad. Liveris argues for reforms in spending, tax, regulatory, immigration and education policies to promote competitiveness.

Such a business-oriented agenda might emerge from broad-minded policy planning processes of a kind that simply do not exist in the executive or legislative branches of our government today. Absent that, it might be tempting to believe that we could improve our economic prospects by creating a Department of Business, Trade and Technology, as suggested in the Center for American Progress report, or more ambitiously, with more functions, a Department of Competitiveness. But it is not at all clear that moving agencies around, with all the attendant disruption, would make much of a difference. Indeed, small nimble agencies might be stifled in new bureaucratic layers.

It would make no difference in the assignments of people who do the work Congress has authorized and funded. For that, we'd need more than new organization charts, we'd need new laws. And Congress, even more balkanized than the executive branch, does not yet have a Win the Future Committee.

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