Avoid the Arbitrary

Don’t pick a number, any number, when setting goals for your office.

Don't pick a number, any number, when setting goals for your office.

Back in the 1990s, the Clinton administration announced a goal of reducing the ranks of middle management at federal agencies so there would be one manager for every 15 employees-double the existing governmentwide ratio of one boss to seven workers.

George W. Bush campaigned in the 2000 presidential race with a goal of cutting 40,000 managers from the federal workforce. And now in the Obama administration, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has set a target for insourcing 30,000 federal workers from the ranks of outside contractors.

In each case, federal leaders set broad numerical goals for the civil service. They weren't completely out of thin air, but in the vast 2 million-strong federal workforce comprising a variety of agencies and offices with divergent missions, they were all a bit arbitrary. Gates' insourcing goal is still a work in progress, but the first two examples clearly showed the limits of setting broad numerical goals.

Neither worked out.

In the case of the Clinton administration's 1-15 ratio, the then-General Accounting Office found that many agencies complied with the letter of the order, but not the spirit. Instead of halving their management ranks, many agencies simply reclassified managers as "team leaders" so the ratio was achieved on paper. The reality was there was little change.

Bush's goal of 40,000 barely survived the 2000 election. Once his administration took office, Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels abandoned the campaign target. "We don't know what the number is going to be," Daniels said in 2001. "We'll let the facts dictate the changes." The Bush administration held on to another broad goal much longer-one that would force 425,000 federal workers to compete with private contractors for their jobs. Congress hacked away at that goal, and eventually only a fraction of that number actually underwent public-private competitions. Indeed, Gates' insourcing goal for 30,000 workers is largely a reversal of that effort.

In every case, big numbers signaled to the public that the president wanted to move in a different direction from past administrations, and the numbers were supposed to be indicators of their seriousness-at least to the public at large. For the workforce, the fact that such big-number announcements are almost always followed by a gradual abandonment of the underlying goals only breeds cynicism toward broad-based management decrees.

Are there better ways to signal the significance of a management initiative without resorting to arbitrary numbers? How can leaders get the workforce to move in the direction they want without setting big numerical goals?

Eliminating management layers, outsourcing, insourcing or expanding supervisory ratios doesn't guarantee better results. Indeed, focusing on these issues takes workers' eyes off the goals that truly matter and shifts them instead to internal tussles. A more effective way is to focus on results-like better service to the public or faster completion of work at lower costs-rather than on inputs such as the number of supervisors or contractors. Top leaders can let the managers who know their offices best figure out how to arrange their workforces to meet the goals that the public really cares about.

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.

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