When President Obama detailed proposals to reorganize and streamline certain government functions last week, some folks wanted to know why it took nearly a year to develop the plan.
One reason is the involvement of federal employees.
No, they didn’t gum up the bureaucracy or sit on their hands or hinder progress, as is too often the unfair and inaccurate caricature of government workers.
Instead, they were a valuable part of a long process leading to Obama’s announcement that six agencies dealing with business and trade would be consolidated into what is now the Commerce Department. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which takes the largest part of Commerce’s budget and includes the National Weather Service, would move to the Interior Department.
The reorganization proposal, which must be approved by Congress, took time, Jeffrey D. Zients, the administration’s chief performance officer, told reporters last week. “We talked to hundreds of businesses, reached out to federal employees,” he said. “This is very rigorous work, and we wanted to make sure we got it right.”
Zients also is a deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget and the architect of the consolidation program (with able assistance from Lisa Brown). In the wake of Zient’s leading the consolidation effort, Obama announced Tuesday that Zients is being promoted to acting OMB director.
If his promotion is any way connected to his leadership on the reorganization process, then perhaps in some small way he owes his new gig to the many federal employees who contributed their thoughts on how to make the government more efficient.
“Many of the best ideas for saving money and streamlining services come from frontline employees, and we’ve got great people on our frontlines in the federal government,” Zients said. “So we got a whole host of ideas of how we could consolidate services, including Web sites and applications and forms and other things, directly from the frontline workers who work on serving American businesses every day.”
Maybe more than anyone, it is the federal worker who agrees with Obama that in some ways “the government we have is not the government we need.”
To help officials determine how to make it the government we need, the administration launched a Web site to collect ideas from federal workers. “We want to hear from federal employees about what works and what we can improve,” says the Government Reform for Competitiveness and Innovation Initiative site.
Ideas were submitted through April 15, and 5,350 are posted on the site. Not all of them are good ideas, at least one is frightening, but many make plenty of sense.
For example, one writer suggested consolidating Commerce and Interior agencies that have separate oversight of sea turtles. Apparently, it makes a difference to regulators if the animals are walking or swimming. Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service has jurisdiction when the turtles are on land, while NOAA looks out for them when they are in water, according to the NOAA employee in Silver Spring who submitted the suggestion. The employees are identified by agency and sometimes city, but no names.
There was a surprising reply to one writer who said Uncle Sam should offer a “wellness bonus” to employees because “a more physically healthy government workforce, would be cheaper and more effective on the taxpayers.”
That generated this comment: “NOOOO! When will people realize that it is longevity that kills budgets,” because of lifetime health-care and retirement costs. A sickly worker who dies sooner saves the government money, this writer said.
Some suggestions can be disturbing, like the one that federal prisoners should be housed in tents.
The Air Force employee’s idea: “I’ve been reading a lot of postings on saving money in federal prisons. My question is why are we wasting money on prison facilities anyways? Why not just make all prisons tent cities like [Maricopa Sheriff] Joe Arpaio implemented in Arizona.
“The soldiers serving our country sleep in tents while deployed for months at a time. Why can’t prison inmates? Maybe they won’t want to come back.”
Or perhaps some ideas came from a disturbed person, such as the extreme comment made in response to the tent proposal.
“How about putting them in comas for the duration of their sentence and harvesting their organs for others to use? They get a new organ when the next prisoner comes in. China does this with the executed! No guards, no food, few facilities needed.”
The comment’s author was identified only as a Commerce staffer. It sounds like it really came from a Nazi prison camp doctor.