Trade offices targeted in reorganization plan

June 8, 2011

A long-running obsession of Washington’s fraternity of government management gurus is how to overhaul the Commerce Department, the sprawling agency responsible for, among other things, the census, telecommunications, fisheries and the weather.

Shut it down, some say, and divide its parts among other Cabinet departments. Spin off the U.S. Census Bureau. Move the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service over to the Interior Department.

On Thursday, President Obama will receive the results of a six-month study on how to close, merge or recast at least some of the 12 federal export and trade offices run by Commerce or the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, according to administration officials familiar with the study. Officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

“The federal government is a big place. It’s right to focus,” said Jeffrey Zients, the government’s chief performance officer, who worked on the study. “This area is a high priority for the president. He has a goal of doubling exports by 2015. It’s important for creating jobs. We need to focus, and we’re focusing on a high-priority area.”

Aides said Zients, a Washington business veteran, and Lisa Brown , a former White House staff secretary, focused on the trade and export offices to help fulfill a campaign pledge to streamline government operations and convince a skeptical business community that Obama is serious about easing the regulatory burden.

But some doubt the administration will follow through on its proposals. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who as governor overhauled the Virginia state government, urged caution. “I’m glad they’ve talked about it, but whether they’re going to act on it, the jury’s out,” Warner said.

Dwight Ink, who led civil serve reform projects for presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, said that such efforts are more successful if they begin at the start of a presidency. “It takes time to carefully engage employees, other stakeholders and Congress in the planning process, more time to secure Congressional action and even more time ... to engage the various affected groups,” Ink writes in the forthcoming issue of the quarterly journal Public Manager. If done too quickly, “the result of simply shuffling the boxes will be a confused and disgruntled workforce with no interest in making the new arrangement succeed.”

At a recent gathering, Ink and some former government colleagues discussed how most reorganization plans involve a hard look at Commerce.

“We’re kind of like Noah’s Ark, except we only have one of everything,” joked Alan Balutis, a Commerce veteran now with Cisco’s Internet Business Solutions Group.

Others noted that previous revamps — including Vice President Al Gore’s “reinventing government” project and performance management goals set by President George W. Bush — usually fizzled quickly.

“Most of these efforts are huge failures,” said Bob Tobias, a public management professor at American University. “The aesthetics of the reorganization chart are rolled out… but those who do the work keep doing the same work as before.”

Administration officials said it would be at least a week before the study will be publicly released.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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