The Body-Count War

The Body-Count War


t seems increasingly likely that President Clinton will have as many as four fewer chairs at his Cabinet table later this year. The Commerce Department is almost certain to disappear. Why should Democrats care about saving Herbert Hoover's old department? Education seems on the way out, too, although no one quite knows where to send the remains. Back to HHS? Over to Labor?

Energy is more difficult to cut, if only because the Defense Department would have to pick up the pieces. Fear of just such a situation is why Congress created a civilian nuclear program in the first place. Housing and Urban Development is an on-again, off-again target, in part because there's not much left to dismantle.

Congress also seems sure to eliminate a pack of lesser agencies, as hungry staffers page through the U.S. Government Manual in search of prey. The Administrative Conference of the United States is on the block, it seems, largely because House budget cutters simply don't know what it does. It doesn't seem to matter that the Administrative Conference has a long and distinguished record of making government work better, which is precisely what the budget cutters say they want.

It is not yet clear whether the cutbacks will cause great mischief. But what is clear is that they will probably do little good. Just as fad diets rarely produce much long-term weight loss, quick cuts rarely generate much in long-term savings.

Republicans aren't the only ones playing the body-count game these days, however. Clinton Administration officials repeatedly tout their effort to cut 273,000 federal jobs, though they know most of the cuts that have been made so far come from previously scheduled military base closures.

There is nothing wrong with waging war on bureaucracy, of course, if the only goal is making government look smaller. If, however, Congress and the President want to realign the structure of government with their "do-more-with-less" rhetoric, a body-count campaign will not do. For starters, the public might actually be fooled into believing government is going to become more effective, when, in fact, nothing much has been done to put resources where they belong: at the front lines, where services are delivered.

More importantly, a body-count war ignores the real gains that would come from a broad restructuring of government. The gains would not come from random attacks on vulnerable agencies but from sharply reducing the number of layers between the top and bottom of the hierarchy. That includes long-needed efforts to pare down duplication in administrative and oversight units and a sustained focus on flattening the uppermost layers of government.

One way to start a more serious debate on structure is to resurrect some of Vice President Gore's original ideas. Lost in the current frenzy, for example, is Gore's theory that the federal government has too many controllers, overseers and inspectors. Gore's National Performance Review staff hasn't been talking about that idea for months, perhaps because it became utterly impossible to figure out how to separate the controllers from the doers.

Lost, too, is a concern for real broadening of supervisor-to-subordinate spans of control. The current effort to widen spans of control is mostly an exercise in semantics. There are more "team leaders" in the federal government today than in Little League baseball, but most are still behaving as managers.

Real structural reform must involve truly eliminating layers of controllers and mid-level managers, and it must also involve an honest cut at the top of government, where executive-level employees occupy between 40 and 60 percent of the management layers between the President and the front lines. If it takes a deep cut in career executives to get a parallel cut in political appointees, it may be time to pay the price.

Real reform also means attacking the one-to-one spans of control that persist throughout agencies' headquarters, where alter-ego deputies of one kind or another add needless review to an already over-stuffed chain of command. And it must include an across-the-board assault on the anachronistic regional-office system.

This work cannot be done overnight; it's one thing to shut down the Department of Commerce, quite another to undertake a serious restructuring of all the departments and agencies. That's why the Clinton Administration should encourage the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee to move forward with its proposal for a commission on executive-branch reorganization. It may be the only way to stave off the continued random assault.

At the same time, Congress can use the appropriations process to aid the restructuring effort. There is no reason, for example, why Congress can't require agencies to sharply reduce the number of one-to-one spans of control.

Finally, real reform means a concentrated focus on management within the Office of Management and Budget. Much as one can admire OMB's effort to merge management and budget at the analyst level, departments and agencies have never done well when left in charge of their own shapes. Leaving them alone with the refrigerator door open is hardly the best way to keep government as slim as possible.

The weight-loss metaphor is appropriate for discussing what's now happening in Washington. The trick is not to lose weight fast -- just about anyone can lose five pounds overnight if they stop drinking fluids -- but to take the weight off without harming the body and to keep it off. Alas, the current round of budget cutting is crash dieting at its worst. We risk waking up five years hence just as heavy as before, having squandered an important opportunity to adopt some proper habits for staying thin.

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