Reorganization is easy compared to culture change.
In the immediate aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, President Obama did what presidents often do in such situations: He acted on the urge to reorganize federal operations. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the Minerals Management Service, which oversees oil and other mineral revenues, would be split into three divisions to sharpen its focus on management and oversight of offshore drilling activities.
There's a long tradition in government of reacting to scandal or disaster by reshuffling boxes on organizational charts. But it quickly became clear that MMS' problems were more cultural than organizational. Even as oil continued to pour into the Gulf at the rate of thousands of barrels a day, new stories emerged of the cozy relationship between the agency and energy companies. "Obviously, we're all oil industry," was the way one MMS manager characterized the people who work at the agency and those at the companies it is charged with overseeing.
So in mid-June, Obama made a bolder move. He appointed Michael Bromwich, the former inspector general at the Justice Department with a lengthy track record in oversight of sensitive federal operations, to head MMS. In one swoop, Obama sought to dramatically shift the agency's culture.
The president was blunt in announcing Bromwich's appointment, saying his "charge over the next few months is to build an organization that acts as the oil industry's watchdog-not its partner." That's a big challenge, which likely will take more than a few months to meet. It will require nothing less than a change in the MMS mission statement, which reads as follows: "MMS' mission is to manage the ocean energy and mineral resources on the Outer Continental Shelf and federal and American Indian mineral revenues to enhance public and trust benefits, promote responsible use, and realize fair value."
There's a bit of "watchdog" in there, but a lot of "partner," too. So it's hard to overstate the scope of the task Bromwich has in front of him.
Something similar to what is happening at MMS is going on in the federal personnel world. As Elizabeth Newell reports in our cover story in this issue, the Obama administration has embarked on an effort to overhaul and streamline the federal hiring system. The systemic changes are relatively simple-such as eliminating lengthy essays on job applications and cumbersome requirements on who can be considered as finalists for jobs.
In fact, though, such changes are only the beginning. Now comes the hard part: changing the culture of hiring so managers are much more involved in the process and accountable for speeding it up. That will be a much tougher nut to crack.