Report offers lessons on government reorganizations

Joe Davidson
Columnist August 29, 2011

The cover of a report about key government reorganizations in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks shows busy bees working in a hive.

It’s a curious pick for the cover because the hive represents what the new agencies were not — well-organized.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

The report’s title, “Securing the Future,” clearly represents what the bees are doing. But the subtitle, “Management Lessons of 9/11,” more accurately represents what government leaders involved in reorganizations should do — learn from the many problems encountered when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) got started.

Though the report — being issued Tuesday by the Partnership for Public Service, a good-government group, and the consulting firm of Booz Allen Hamilton — focuses on management issues, the implications for employees are clear, particularly the senior career staffers who will continue to guide a new agency after the political appointees are gone.

“Winning the hearts and minds of career leaders” is crucial, Ron Sanders, a former ODNI chief human capital officer, said in the report. If the senior career staff is committed to the new agency’s mission, other staffers likely will follow. If the career managers equivocate or reminisce about how good things used to be, staffers will “cue off of that, too,” added Sanders in an interview. He also is a Booz Allen senior executive adviser.

“If taken for granted,” he said, “career civil servants can always wait political leadership out.” ODNI was created in 2005 to coordinate the work of 16 intelligence agencies.

The report is more than an exercise in 20/20 hindsight. Its lessons could have immediate application, perhaps with the current merger of Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the District with Bethesda National Naval Medical Center to form the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda.

Authors of the study say its purpose was not to relive the policy debates about the wisdom of the post-Sept. 11 reorganizations but “to understand the management challenges . . . and to derive lessons that can be applied to restructuring efforts today and in the future. . . . Our research offers a cautionary tale.”

The 2003 merger of 22 agencies to form DHS, the report says, resulted in “confused functional and operational roles and responsibilities, dissatisfied citizens and employees, intense political pressures and public scrutiny.”

The cautionary tale is that effective leadership can do much to avoid these problems. All four of the lessons highlighted in the report concern the importance of leadership. For example, it says “chain of command is necessary but not sufficient.” The organizational chart is important, but strong leadership is needed “to articulate the mission and the reasons for change, guide the transformation . . .

This gets to an important point made by Max Stier, the Partnership’s president and chief executive. During a conversation about the report, he said that federal agencies pay little attention to communicating with their employees. The Partnership has a content-sharing deal with The Washington Post.

“I don’t know of one federal agency that really focuses on internal communication in the depth and breadth that it needs to,” he said. That’s valuable in the everyday business of an agency, but it’s critical during a major restructuring.

Another lesson: “The soft stuff is often the hardest to tackle.” The leadership must communicate the vision, values and culture of the new organization, while, the report says, “showing sensitivity to the legacy cultures, histories and traditions” of the formerly separate agencies.

One example of this was an early plan to have all DHS law enforcement officers wear the same uniform even though assigned to different agencies. “I thought the Border Patrol would en masse walk out and quit,” Frances Townsend, homeland security adviser to former president George W. Bush, said in the report. “They had a proud history.”

Townsend, whom we could not reach for an interview, had cogent remarks in the report about the impact of reorganization on employees. It means worker bees may have new queen bees. Sometimes people are detailed outside their home agency. This leads to uncertainty about who is an employee’s boss and how that could affect careers.

“Having been a career person in the federal government for decades, it really does matter who is responsible for my professional development and my evaluation and my promotion potential and opportunities. So when you are detailed outside your home agency, you immediately feel sort of at-risk,” said Townsend, a former Justice Department lawyer. “It’s the ‘who’s my daddy’ problem.”

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