Big Brass

Does government have too many people at the top?

In our cover story this month, Brian Friel explores efforts at collaborative problem-solving, which is a very tricky business in government. Bureaucracy is by nature hierarchical, and increasingly the challenges of government no longer lend themselves to solutions developed in vertically oriented structures.

Just ask the people who are responding to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, or implementing Recovery Act measures to rebuild the economy, or seeking to address cross-cutting issues such as climate change.

In his story, Friel has this to say about the National Response Team's approach to managing disaster response across its multiple member agencies: "When time is of the essence, you have to slice off the top five layers of the organizational chart, get all the best technical and professional GS-15s in a room, and let them come up with solutions."

This raises an interesting and uncomfortable question: Are the people at the top the problem? If slicing layers from the higher ranks is the best way to work in a crisis, why shouldn't that be standard operating procedure? And shouldn't time be of the essence in most of the things government is assigned to manage?

Defense Secretary Robert Gates certainly seems to think there's a problem at the top of his org chart. In August, he announced a massive effort to cut overhead spending at the Pentagon, aiming his sights squarely at the senior military and civilian ranks. Gates proposed eliminating at least 150 Senior Executive Service positions and 50 general and flag officer posts during the next two years.

The Defense Department suffers from "brass creep," Gates said. "In some cases, this creep is fueled by the desire to increase bureaucratic clout or prestige of a particular service, function or region, rather than reflecting the scope and duties of the job itself. And in a post-9/11 era, when more and more responsibility, including decisions with strategic consequences, is being exercised by more junior officers in theater, the Defense Department continues to maintain a top-heavy hierarchy that more reflects 20th century protocols than 21st century realities."

In the Pentagon's case, much of the growth in the upper ranks has occurred since the Sept. 11 attacks, as the department beefed up for its worldwide war on terror. But it's not as though the rest of government is immune to grade creep. Paul Light of New York University's Wagner School of Public Service has long lamented the ongoing growth in layers of management across agencies.

For now, no one's talking about throwing generals or SES members out of their jobs. But the people in those jobs won't be around forever, and the folks below them in the hierarchy might have to accept that the top jobs themselves aren't necessarily a permanent fixture, either.

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