Reality Check

Reorganizing government makes sense-in theory.

In March, the White House doubled down on the prospect of reshuffling the government's organizational chart. President Obama, building on his declaration in his State of the Union that he would "develop a proposal to merge, consolidate and reorganize the federal government" within a few months, issued a memo to agencies ordering an effort to do exactly that.

His rhetoric was sweeping. "We cannot win the future with a government built for the past," Obama wrote. "We live and do business in the Information Age, but the organization of the federal government has not kept pace. Government agencies have grown without overall strategic planning and duplicative programs have sprung up, making it harder for each to reach its goals."

But when it came to specifics, all the talk was about business-related agencies, especially trade-related ones. The first phase of the reorganization campaign, Obama said, would focus on that part of government's org chart. This begs the question: Will there actually be a second, more comprehensive phase? There are reasons to doubt it. After all, the trade-related reorganization could in and of itself accomplish one of Obama's central goals: send a message to the business community that he will structure government to support American competitiveness.

What's more, the prospect of full-scale reorganization is daunting indeed.

Historically, attempts to close, consolidate, merge and reorganize federal agencies have had a very low success rate. As Charlie Clark reports in our cover story, they tend to run smack into political brick walls built by interest groups and shored up by lawmakers. And reorganizations require sustained commitment. The archetypical modern large-scale restructuring, which the Hoover commission undertook in 1947, resulted in hundreds of recommendations that took years to implement.

Then there's the dirty little secret that public administration experts know but politicians don't want to admit: Reorganizations don't save money, they cost money. That's why presidents tend to push them during times of prosperity or national crisis. And in the latter case, they tend not to work out very well-look at the Homeland Security Department.

So, does the Obama administration have the stomach for a fight over reorganization that will involve considerable expenditures of both po-litical and financial capital? Phase 1 of its approach, which certainly will involve battles and delicate maneuvers both on Capitol Hill and in affected agencies, may well exhaust the administration's patience. If so, the president could decide to put away the wrecking ball and, like other presidents have done, learn to live with the government's organizational structure as it has haphazardly developed during many decades.

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