Employee input key to reorganization effort

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 26, 2011; 11:31 PM

"Presidents have taken to reorganizations the way overweight people take to fad diets - and with about the same results." - James Q. Wilson in "Bureaucracy: What government agencies do and why they do it."

Maybe this time will be different.

Some reorganizations, of course, work better than others. President Obama probably expects his State of the Union call "to merge, consolidate, and reorganize the federal government in a way that best serves the goal of a more competitive America" will result in a government better able to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Merging, consolidating and reorganizing means little in the abstract. Until he sends his promised proposal to Congress, it's impossible to know how serious he is and how effective the changes might be.

Whatever plans Obama and Congress develop, at frequent steps along the way, they should consult with a particular group of experts who have good ideas about how government can improve: federal workers.

"This really means that human capital - and federal employees - has to be part of this debate, from the very beginning," said Donald F. Kettl, dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. "Too often, we think about human capital as the last question. It needs to be one of the first."

The administration's labor-management forums would be the ideal place to get workers involved in the process. One question to be considered is what kind of reorganization is needed.

"Everything depends on what the R-word actually means," said Paul C. Light, a professor of public service at New York University.

Light called "reorganization" the "best word Obama used in the speech." Nonetheless, he's cautious, having seen ineffective efforts before.

"If it's just consolidation of duplication programs (including the 12 or so that regulate Pacific salmon alone), we will have missed a once-in-a-generation opportunity for comprehensive reform," Light said. "And if it becomes a mishmash of attrition-based downsizing a la Reinventing Government [the Clinton administration program to create a government that 'works better, costs less, and gets results Americans care about'], it will hit the front lines of government hard."

Reorganization projects can be complex and controversial and subject to different evaluations. Elaine Kamarck, a lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, has a more generous view of the Clinton effort, which she said "modernized the federal government and brought it into the Internet age. Many of the initiatives of that period - performance management, an emphasis on customer service and the transition of government services to online services - are, today, standard operating procedures in the federal government and in many state and local governments."

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