The federal government is top-heavy with more layers of high-ranking bureaucrats than ever before, impeding the flow of information within agencies and clouding the accountability of the officials who run them, according to a study to be released today.
The study, conducted for the Brookings Institution by government scholar Paul C. Light, found that the number of federal executive titles swelled to 64 this year. That's up from 51 in 1998, 33 in 1992 and 17 in 1960.
"It's a natural phenomenon of bureaucratic behavior, and if you don't pay attention to it it's like kudzu -- it grows," said Light, a professor at New York University's Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service.
Light and his research assistants combed the Federal Yellow Book, a directory of more than 40,000 executive branch officials. They took inventory of top managerial jobs in the 15 Cabinet departments, counting only titles that link directly to the Senate-confirmed positions of secretary, deputy secretary, undersecretary, assistant secretary and administrator.
Comparing the results with previous studies, they charted the birth and proliferation of such titles as deputy associate deputy secretary, deputy associate assistant secretary and principal deputy deputy assistant secretary. The jobs were held by political appointees and career executives.
One of the more notable growth professions was that of chief of staff to a Cabinet secretary. The first such post was created in 1981 at the Department of Health and Human Services. It spread to 10 more departments over the next decade and now exists at every Cabinet agency except Defense.
"People just end up believing from a power and perquisite standpoint that you've got to have a chief of staff if you are to be seen as a credible player," Light said.
The report cited several reasons for the overall trend, including the use of promotions rather than pay raises to reward senior employees, the creation of new positions by Congress and attempts by presidents to tighten their hold on the bureaucracy with a greater number of political appointees. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security is partly responsible for the growth, but every department except Treasury has added new executive titles since 1998.
Title creep may be good for business card printers, but it is bad for agencies and taxpayers, Light said. Information about problems -- mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by the military, say, or concerns about possible damage to the space shuttle -- has to pass through more hands before it gets to the top.
"It helps explain why information flows are sometimes so sluggish," Light said. "And it also explains why we can't hold anybody accountable for what goes right or wrong. There are just so many places that decisions get made, or not made, that you can't really figure out who is responsible."
After reviewing the study, Chad Kolton, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget, said in an e-mail: "President Bush has significantly improved the federal government's effectiveness, most notably in better protecting our nation by merging 22 separate agencies into a Department of Homeland Security. This largest government reorganization in more than 50 years has made us safer by streamlining bureaucracy, combining resources and improving communication."
While Bush has slowed the rate of title growth, the government is adding an average of one executive title a year, Light said.
The trend has gone the other way in the private sector. Investor pressures for more efficiency and concerns about muddled information channels sparked a drive toward fewer corporate management layers that began 15 years ago, said Michael Useem, a professor of management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
"Many companies began a long march to streamline and flatten," Useem said. ". . . Everybody with any management sense whatsoever says it is a good idea, not only for information coming up, but to ensure actions get taken and not snarled in endless approval and red tape."