The rocky road to reorganization, from Nixon to Obama

Dennis Brack/Newscom File Photo
Government reorganization efforts are almost always unsuccessful and virtually never save taxpayers money, a host of public management experts said Tuesday, outlining likely obstacles for President Obama's plan to streamline federal operations. "Most of these efforts are huge failures," said Robert Tobias, director of public sector executive education at American University, during a panel discussion Tuesday hosted by the National Academy of Public Administration.

Panel members had participated in similar efforts dating back to the Nixon administration. Dwight Ink, president emeritus of the Institute of Public Administration and a veteran of several reorganization efforts, was blunt about these plans: "Some are useful, a few are essential. But most I would not have undertaken, including the ones I had responsibility for selling to Congress," Ink said.

The Obama administration has not presented a detailed plan for its reorganization but does appear to want to focus initially on trade, business and the larger concept of global competitiveness.

Proposals offered by the Center for American Progress, an advocacy group with close ties to the White House, have suggested the creation of a Business, Trade and Technology Department by combining agencies at the Commerce Department with several smaller trade and business-centered agencies and offices.

Additionally, the administration could create a larger umbrella agency that also includes job training and higher education programs from the Education and Labor departments, the group said. The new uber-agency also could subsume science and economic development programs from the Energy, Housing and Urban Development, and Transportation departments.

Lisa Brown,co-director of the government reorganization effort at the Office of Management and Budget, initially was slated to attend the conference but decided not to go, citing a need to respond to intense congressional interest in the proposal, said Kris Marcy, NAPA's president and chief executive officer.

Without an administration official on hand to discuss the effort, the panel focused more on the best -- and worst -- practices for reorganizing. One of the first steps, said R. Scott Fosler, a senior fellow at the Center for Public Policy, is for OMB to diagnose the purpose of the effort and determine what is causing the problems government wants to solve.

"Reorganizing is a possibility," Fosler said. "But, it needs to be done carefully and with a great deal of thought. It needs to be done the right way."

Paul Posner,director of the department of public and international affairs at George Mason University, warned against "misplaced aesthetics," noting that past efforts have focused on simplistic notions that agencies and departments can be shifted around based on supposed commonality. "It's much harder to get inside an agency and look at its wiring," Posner said.

Posner pointed to the creation of the Homeland Security Department in 2002 as a classic example of what can go wrong with reorganization. Designed to consolidate the government's anti-terrorism focus, DHS encompasses only 40 percent of those functions while creating a host of other control problems, including 88 congressional subcommittees with jurisdiction over the department. "Reorganizing always creates new problems while solving others," he said.

Other reorganizations were doomed by a sense of hubris that the federal government had all the answers, or by a lack of congressional buy-in, the panelists explained. Most agreed that for the Obama administration to avoid the mistakes of the past, the effort must be collaborative and include not only members of the executive and legislative branches, but the private sector, nonprofits and state and local governments as well.

That collaboration began in earnest last week as the leaders of the House and Senate committees with primary federal oversight responsibilities sent a letter to OMB Deputy Director Jeffrey Zients, who is leading the administration's reorganization initiative, asking for an update on the effort and a timeline for developmental implementation.

"We recommend that we be brought into the process early on so that we can contribute collaboratively in the process of developing a proposal," wrote Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the House Oversight Committee. The letter also was signed by Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

No matter the approach and tactics the administration uses, nearly all the panelists agreed that cost savings should not be the goal. While functions and operations can be shifted horizontally and vertically throughout the bureaucracy, someone still needs to perform the work, and reorganizations rarely result in a smaller workforce. Meanwhile, the short-term disruptions associated with reorganization often lead to net costs to the taxpayers, said Alan Balutis,director and distinguished fellow at Cisco-Business Solutions Group."There are no savings from reorganization," Balutis said. "Only costs."

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