By Joe Davidson
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."
Apparently Obama did not consider such things as the Clinton effort or the creation of the Homeland Security Department to be a big deal. "The last major reorganization of the government happened in the age of black-and-white TV," he said Tuesday.
Though he didn't identify it by name, he was referring to the Hoover commissions, appointed by presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower and led by former president Herbert Hoover. Among other things, the panels led to the creation of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (which itself has since been reorganized) and today's federal civil service, which some folks think needs reorganizing now.
Reorganization can only do so much. What really makes a difference is person-to-person communication.
"Our biggest problems are not so much the structure of individual agencies but the coordination among them," Kettl said. "It's very hard to create any single organization that can fully encompass any problem that matters. Some restructurings can stir up so much dust that it becomes that much harder to work on the interagency collaboration we must need."
The formation of the Homeland Security Department after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks certainly stirred up much dust and left many people wondering whether it was worth the effort.
"It didn't solve the problems, but it didn't make anything worse," is the luke warm assessment of John Palguta, a vice president of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit organization that studies federal personnel issues. (The Partnership has a content-sharing relationship with The Washington Post.) "It's better than it was before, Homeland Security, but I don't think anyone would suggest it has met all the high aspirations everyone had. No."
Count employees among those disappointed with the department. On the Partnership's Best Places to Work list, Homeland Security comes in close to last, 28th on a list of 32 agencies in 2010.
Reorganizations can be "a major distraction to employees," said Jonathan D. Breul, executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government. But done properly, he said, they can result in a clear understanding of an agency's mission, which can lead to better worker morale and customer service.
Of Obama's planned reorganization, Breul said "it is not too much to suggest that both the effectiveness of government and public regard for public-sector programs is at stake."