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10 Things to Know About Government Reorganizations

The “soft” stuff turns out to be the hard stuff.

I have had a long and somewhat checkered career in public service. Among the things that stand out to me are the research and work I’ve done related to government reorganizations. I was involved in creating two new agencies, abolishing two others, and moving an agency from one Cabinet department to another.

While much has been written about the topic in general, a search for information about the effects of reorganizations is an unrewarding task. Almost no one has asked the question: What difference have past reorganization plans and executive orders made? How have they been implemented and with what results?

Here’s what we do know:

1. Reorganization is not a cure-all. At times, a careful analysis would have shown that a problem is caused more by faulty processes, a poorly trained workforce, or weak leadership than by the structure. Maybe the cause is a combination of the three. Success with large-scale reorganizations depends on the extent to which all three of these basic elements are addressed in tandem.

2. Lift the veil of secrecy quickly. Reorganization plans often need to be crafted relatively secretly, to ensure ideas don’t emerge stillborn. But once released, the circle should be expanded quickly to engage employees, unions, key stakeholders, substantive congressional players (not simply the government operations committees), and so on.

3. Reorganizations are often overhyped. Reorganizations are usually “designed” to simplify and streamline, bring about greater efficiency and economy, eliminate fragmentation, and so on. These goals are consistent with traditional public administration doctrine and characteristic of what Harold Seidman regarded as “administrative orthodox.” But it will be difficult, if not impossible, to measure success in terms of such proverbs or organizational platitudes.

4. There’s savings! What savings? Reorganizations always are justified in terms of a traditional public administration doctrine: economy and efficiency. But tracking agency savings, as almost any seasoned budget officer would tell you, is dealing with funny money. Most reorganization assessments have verified Rufus Miles’ assertion that savings, as a ground for a major reorganization, is a will-o’-the-wisp.

5. Implementation doesn’t follow automatically after policy formulation. Results will deviate from expectations. Any reorganized agency undertakes a heavy load of bureaucratic activities—budget, finance, grants, personnel, acquisition, security, real and personal property, and other administrative services. The magnitude of these endeavors can only be understood by someone familiar with the complexity and arduousness of federal management systems. But implementation often seems the missing link in reorganization.

6. Reorganizations have traumatic effects. Related to the above, serious concern with implementation is typically too little and too late. Enormous attention is devoted to analyzing and deciding what changes should be made. The problem of getting from here to there is addressed only belatedly. Government reorganizers must pay special attention to the problems that can be caused by excessive tinkering, Miles has noted:

“Traumatic reorganizations may be analogized to surgical operations. It is important that their  purposes be carefully assessed and a thoughtful judgement reached that the wielding of the surgical knife is going to achieve a purpose that, after a period of recuperation, will be worth the trauma inflicted. And the surgical knife should not be wielded again and again before the healing process from earlier incisions has been completed.”

7. Measure twice, cut once. The executive and legislative branches need to strike the right balance: a high-level blueprint, same flexibilities for the new leadership team to work out the details, engagement of empowered career executives as “co-owners,” with specifics on critical administrative authorities. It is important to get the newly created entity off on the right foot.   

8. The “soft” stuff often turns out to be the hard stuff. This ties back to my earlier points that reorganizations often are driven by hard-nosed finance and budget types who want to focus on “savings” and capture those up front. I was one of them when I was in government. But when you are phasing out programs and processes and standing up new ones—in effect, running them in parallel—costs will increase for a short transitional time before they level out. If one tries to make cuts then, programs are disrupted, services suffer, employees and customers are dissatisfied, and the reorganization falls under additional scrutiny and criticism. So patience, avoiding the thirst for instant gratification, treating employees properly, putting customer service at the forefront, all these “soft things” often have the larger impact on ultimate success and hence the bottom line.

9. If you do it, do it right. That encompasses all the points I’ve made earlier about the importance of implementation, but also includes using a reorganization to re-engineer, to rethink the field structure, and to use technology to transform the way one does business.

10. Finally, build a 21st century government. In his State of the Union address in January 2011, then-President Obama noted, “we cannot win the future with a government of the past.” Months later, he proposed a 1950’s or 60’s box shuffling trade reorganization “designed to eliminate government redundancies and consolidate overlapping functions.” Instead, as Chris Mihm of the Government Accountability Office has argued: “Federal reorganization should be more focused on creating and sustaining what has been referred to as ‘virtual organizations’ that use collaborative mechanisms to knit together various related programs and efforts that cut across federal agencies, levels of government, and even sectors.”

Alan P. Balutis is a senior director and distinguished fellow in Cisco Systems’ U.S. Public Sector.