Federal bureaucracy thickening, study finds

The federal bureaucracy has expanded over the past six years, according to research published Friday by a Brookings Institution scholar.

"Despite the president's promise to bring businesslike thinking to the federal government, the Bush administration has overseen, or at the very least permitted, a significant expansion in the both the height and width of the federal hierarchy," said Paul Light, director of the Center for Public Service at Brookings and a professor at New York University. "There have never been more layers at the top of government, nor more occupants at each layer."

Light based this conclusion on an analysis of positions listed in The Federal Yellow Book directory. With the help of a colleague at Brookings, Light compiled an inventory of managers supporting secretaries, deputy secretaries, undersecretaries, assistant secretaries and administrators at each of the Cabinet departments. Such leadership support positions included chief of staff to the secretary, deputy chief of staff to the secretary, chief of staff to the undersecretary and deputy assistant secretary.

In 2004, there were 64 different support titles across the government. Six years ago, there were 51; in 1992, there were 33. A survey completed in 1960 found just 17.

Of the 64 titles in 2004, many existed at only one or two departments. But 19 were listed in at least seven departments, and six were listed at four to seven departments. "Having a chief of staff has become a signal of one's importance in the bureaucratic pecking order," Light wrote in the report.

Historically, titles have tended to proliferate across the government once introduced in one department, Light noted. For instance, in 1981, one department hired a chief of staff to the secretary. By 1992, 10 departments adopted the position, and by 2004, 14 of the 15 Cabinet departments listed the title.

The breadth of the bureaucracy has also increased, Light found. In 2004, 2,592 employees held senior government positions, almost a 9 percent increase over 1998, when there were 2,385.

While the Bush administration has slowed the rate of increase in layers of bureaucracy, the administration hasn't focused enough attention on streamlining government, Light said. Streamlining of bureaucracy is not listed as a priority in the President's Management Agenda, but should be, according to Light.

"The Bush management agenda cares nothing about the hierarchical structure of departments . . . and I think that's a big mistake," he said. "If you're not paying attention to it, [an expansion] happens naturally."

According to Light, the long-term trend toward a broadening of bureaucracy stems from the "ever-expanding federal agenda," agencies' tendency to offer senior career executives promotions in lieu of pay increases, efforts to control the bureaucracy through "ever-denser networks" of political appointees, and Congress' creation of new titles such as chief information officer and inspector general.

Over the past six years, the thickening of bureaucracy can be attributed partly to homeland security efforts, Light concluded. The Homeland Security Department has 21 managerial layers with 146 employees filling them, as opposed to the three layers and three occupants planned in the winter of 2003, he stated.

But the jump in homeland security-related work doesn't fully account for the recent expansion of bureaucracy, Light said. "Thickening has occurred in almost every department, including many that are not involved in homeland security or the war on terrorism," he stated in his report.

At the same time, the Defense and Treasury departments have demonstrated that agencies can streamline management, Light said. Treasury underwent a 30 percent reduction in titleholders over the past six years, declining from 239 to 168 largely because of the transfer of Customs and the Secret Service to the Homeland Security Department.

The Defense Department made a concerted effort to streamline management, Light said. Though it still has 30 executive titles -- the most in the government -- it has reduced its total number of senior titleholders by 21 percent since 1998.

Other federal agencies should follow Defense and Treasury's lead, Light said, adding that they also should look to the private sector as a model.

"Unlike the private sector, which extols the virtues of 'less is more' when it comes to management layers, Congress and presidents continue to behave as if new layers of management, and more managers at each layer, somehow improve accountability and performance," Light wrote. "In fact, more is actually less when it comes to making sure the front lines of government have the resources and guidance they need to faithfully execute the laws."

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