Reorganization Is a Metaphor for Government Reform

By Posner, Paul L. | The Public Manager, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Reorganization Is a Metaphor for Government Reform


Posner, Paul L., The Public Manager


President Obama's State of the Union address signaled his intention to explore reorganization as a solution to resolving long-standing management and efficiency problems in government.

He should be congratulated for recognizing that reforming the management of the sprawling federal bureaucracy deserves to be on the table when we think about reducing the costs of government. Many governors also have convened efficiency commissions during times of deep deficits.

The public management community must now take the President's high-minded statement and convert it into a useful initiative. Reorganization is but one tool among many to address the problems that have plagued our federal system for years. It is a metaphor for the need to re-examine how the federal government designs and manages its far-flung programs.

Reorganization: The Challenge

It is difficult for reformers to demonstrate the need for change in management processes and program design. These concepts and ideas do not fit easily on Twitter messages or the nightly news. In a world where the urgent often drives out the important, management reform often doesn't stand a chance.

The case for reorganization is compelling and easily visualized. Who can't be outraged to hear that there are 17 agencies involved in food safety, more than 60 job training programs, and a confusing welter of higher education subsidies that families have difficulty navigating?

Organizational chaos is easily presented on PowerPoint slides and social media sites. There is a certain sense of organizational aesthetics that informs the case for reorganization--the government's org chart should feature clear lines of authority with common programs and purposes being grouped under the same agency. The public should be able to understand who to hold responsible.

Reorganization as Serious Reform

Beyond the metaphor, reorganization is a serious strategy to reform government by shaking up the responsibilities of government agencies. The premise is that if I change the location of a set of programs, I can change the outcomes of those programs as well. Those who would dismiss this as a mere bureaucratic paper exercise are wrong. The political noise surrounding reorganization proposals makes evident the high stakes associated with changing organizational addresses for programs and employees alike.

Reorganization is powerful medicine. There are at least three questions about the reorganization cure:

1| Which malady is reorganization best suited to solve?

2| What are the costs and are there more cost-effective solutions?

3| What unintended side effects can occur?

Reorganization: The Poison Pill

With 20-20 hindsight, we now know that reorganization is a daunting venture that presidents, cabinet secretaries, and members of Congress should enter with caution.

Reorganization is politically expensive. Powerful bureaucracies, interest groups, and congressional committees stand ready to protect their turf. A popular president can make the case for reorganization by pointing out too many agencies, as George W. Bush did with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), citing that more than 20 agencies dealt with national threats.

But political capital is scarce, and presidents often prefer to spend it on substantive policy reforms and more politically compelling initiatives. To those of us who believe in management, this is a depressing but familiar scenario indeed. Those who would dismiss this as a mere bureaucratic paper exercise are wrong.

The following constitute the "poison pills" of reorganization efforts:

No magic bullet.

Reorganization guarantees no managerial or programmatic benefits. The management of DHS has made the Government Accountability Office's (GAO's) high-risk list of those areas most vulnerable to fraud, abuse, and mismanagement. …

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