"The tides of reform can no more be ordered to a halt than can the tides of the ocean," civil service scholar Paul C. Light wrote after reviewing 50 years of government change.

The Kerry campaign sailed into reform waters last week, setting a course consistent with previous presidential campaigns. The Democratic contender for the White House announced proposals to cut top-heavy bureaucracy and wasteful spending as part of a plan to restore fiscal discipline in Washington.

"John Kerry will thin out the top ranks of government by restoring the government-wide targets of no more than one supervisor per 15 subordinates. This was the target for Al Gore's reinventing government agenda and succeeded in limiting the growth in executive titles," a campaign paper said.

The Kerry pledge left some federal employees with a sinking feeling.

"Our organization was dismayed to see that language," said Ron Buffaloe, president of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations.

The reinvention project, overseen by former vice president Gore, was taken seriously at the Social Security Administration and cut deeply into the ranks of first-line and second-line supervisors in Social Security field offices, Buffaloe said. "The impact . . . on our supervisors and managers was devastating to the agency, and it has never recovered," he said.

Michael B. Styles, president of the Federal Managers Association, said past experience shows that using numerical goals and a "cookie-cutter approach" usually undermines the efficiency of federal programs. It's better to make staffing decisions based on studies that examine the complexity of work and the mission of each agency, he said.

"We may be top-heavy in one organization and light in another," Styles said. "You just can't come and make a statement that you are going to go after a certain number."

Kerry, of course, is not the only presidential candidate to call for a smaller bureaucracy.

During the 1992 campaign for the presidency, Bill Clinton promised to cut 100,000 federal jobs. Gore's reinvention project called for reducing middle management and cutting headquarters administrative staffs. Instead of one supervisor for every seven employees, Gore asked agencies to increase the ratio to one for every 15 workers.

Studies show that the Clinton-Gore effort produced mixed results. More than 350,000 employees left the federal payroll, but numerous agencies appeared to weed out middle management in name only. One study, for example, found that 19 agencies simply renamed supervisors as "team leaders."

In the 2000 campaign, the Bush campaign called for flattening the federal hierarchy. Campaign aides called for eliminating 40,000 management jobs, mostly by not hiring replacements as employees retired, and shifting 10,000 high-level jobs to the front lines to improve delivery of services.

After the election, those numerical goals faded. The Bush management agenda, published in 2001, directed agencies to "identify how it will reduce the number of managers, reduce the number of organizational layers, reduce the time it takes to make decisions, change the span of control."

The Bush administration is grading agencies on their workforce plans and appears to have slowed the rate of increase in the creation of executive titles. Still, Light, author of "The Tides of Reform" and a professor at New York University, said in a recent study that the government has more layers of high-ranking officials than ever before.

Today's debate, Light said in an interview, should be "on whether you are going to support the front lines of government or the senior hierarchy." Getting more money, equipment and staff "at the bottom" of agencies should be a goal, he said.

Robert Gordon, one of Kerry's domestic policy advisers, said the campaign proposal to pare back federal supervisors represented an initial step toward creating a Kerry management agenda.

"We put out the 15-to-1 as a goal and not a rigid target," Gordon said.

Kerry aides are interested in reducing management layers, and perhaps cutting political appointees, as a way to improve the flow of information inside agencies, he said.

"The focus here is on jobs at the very top, substantially political jobs, and it is not a rigid mandate," Gordon said.

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com