Mission Fissures

Many federal agencies have long struggled with conflicting aims. Breaking them up isn’t hard to do.

Through much of the 1990s, critics of the Immigration and Naturalization Service argued that its spotty performance was due largely to its conflicting missions. On the one hand, the agency was charged with quickly processing legal immigrants whose skills were needed in a growing economy. On the other, INS had to block illegal immigrants from entering and staying in the country. The agency seemed unable to perform either mission well, because it was trying to do both. Enforcement and service didn't seem to mix.

In 2003, INS moved from the Justice Department to the Homeland Security Department, and it was split up. The Citizenship and Immigration Services bureau handles the legal immigrant processing mission, while the Customs and Border Protection bureau oversees border security and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau handles the capture and deportation of illegal immigrants.

Did the split work? The evidence so far is encouraging -- though not conclusive. The enforcement bureaus have stepped up their efforts during the past few years, and the number of illegal immigrants estimated to be in the country has fallen. The legal immigrants' services bureau has reduced the processing time for many key groups of applicants.

Similar mission conflicts have plagued other federal organizations. Is the Forest Service supposed to preserve national forests or encourage their cultivation? Was Fannie Mae's goal to increase homeownership or increase profits? The Internal Revenue Service took it on the chin in the 1990s for being too heavy-handed in enforcement and not sufficiently taxpayer-friendly.

The Minerals Management Service, a little-known agency within the Interior Department, has long been criticized for mishandling its conflicting missions: enforcing rules on the oil and gas industry and collecting royalties from their production. Congress and the Obama administration are considering a plan to split that agency in two, much as INS was pulled apart in 2003.

Not every agency has been cleaved because of mixed missions. The Forest Service has maintained its dual roles despite many decades of criticism that it leaned too much one way or another. The argument against splitting the agency has long been that two separate entities with authority over the same land could end up in bitter bureaucratic battles. Keeping a unified agency allows competing interests to work out compromises through a single chain of command, rather than create separate power structures that would wind up in turf wars. The IRS has stayed intact despite criticism of its handling of enforcement and service. Instead of a split, Congress gave the agency a strong national taxpayer advocate, Nina Olson, who has run the office since 2001. The IRS' ombudsman model could help other agencies struggling with the twin needs of enforcing the law and aiding citizens.

For the Minerals Management Service, that kind of change might not be enough. Charges of corruption, incompetence and mismanagement have plagued MMS for decades. Now that the catastrophic BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has laid bare to the entire country the agency's shortcomings, it's hard to see how MMS can avoid a total makeover. It usually takes a great scandal like the oil spill -- or a tragedy like the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the case of the immigration service -- to get policymakers to deal with agencies' inherently flawed missions. Federal managers who don't try to deal strategically with conflicting goals in their agencies' charters ultimately can expect to see lawmakers handle them instead.

NEXT STORY: Asking, Guessing and Leadership