Obama's promise to cut middle managers won't be easy to keep

Shoving aside two unsuccessful examples, President Obama plans to attempt his own take on a pledge made previously by both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to "thin the ranks of Washington middle managers." In a document released on the campaign trail titled "The Change We Need in Washington," Obama promised he would free up resources "both for deficit reduction and for increasing the number of frontline workers."

Experts agree the promise might be hard to measure and -- more importantly -- accomplish.

"The vast majority of federal employees are not managerial, so it's not clear, if we pursued this promise vigorously, how much in savings we'd reap or how many folks we'd get to move to the front lines," said Robert Shea, an associate director for the Bush administration's Office of Management and Budget, who is now at consulting firm Grant Thornton.

Obama adds complexity by committing to move middle managers to the front line. Without that clause, the promise would be "a lot easier to execute," said Paul Light, who researches federal bureaucracy as a public service professor at New York University. After all key OMB players are on board, Light expects a plan to slowly take shape, but making downward shifts will be "a real problem." The administration may reclassify someone as on the front line, but stripping away higher pay is a cumbersome process. "The most efficient way is to remove the occupant or take advantage of the occupant's retirement and recreate the position on the lower level," he said.

Reclassifying instead of eliminating jobs is what undermined Clinton's plan, Light said. The initiative to cut management layers and do away with superfluous positions, around 252,000 in all, morphed into creation of new de facto middle managers under different titles. Clinton's "Reinventing Government" program made the mistake of proposing personnel cuts across the board, Shea said. The cuts "weren't done strategically, so programs that needed more employees probably lost some," he said. "Doing anything like this across the board is a bad idea."

The Clinton plan also came under fire for applying the private sector's manager-employee and supervisory ratios, something Darryl Perkinson, national president of the Federal Managers Association, dismissed as a poor replacement for conversations with middle managers about their place and potential in government affairs.

"In my 29 years, I have worked with only a handful of people that had no business being employed in the government," he said. "I have seen people in the wrong jobs at times, but if they were properly placed they could function and be useful." Referring to Obama's promise to eliminate redundant federal programs by evaluating each and every one of them, Perkinson said the examination "will in most cases highlight the inefficiency is due to the incomplete or misdirected policy of the program, not the effort of the manager."

Bush never took up his promise to reduce the ranks of middle managers by 40,000 though attrition. But Shea said OMB "always had a challenge keeping all positions filled, and we could have used more people in certain areas, but we never made the case."

Light estimated that 14 percent of full-time civil servants in the federal government -- 200,000 to 250,000 people -- are managers of some kind. Depending on what definition of a middle manager guided Obama's promise, the administration might have to fire a number of them to actually reduce spending on salaries while increasing frontline help. That's "easy and very painful to do," Light said. "It's a terrible economy in which to dump... however many middle managers into a Washington economy or a regional economy."

While speculation about Obama's exact plans is premature before his 2010 budget is released in February, specialists agree the administration is unlikely to repeat past mistakes.

Light said the first indication of progress might be a decrease in jobs classified as managerial, which "will take a little bit of time." Shea, however, was less optimistic about obvious signs of the promise's implementation.

"We may not know when or if it is fulfilled," he said.

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