Reorganizing government: Lessons for rightsizing and downsizing

With agency reorganization plans due this month, Alan Balutis offers nine reminders for executives who will shape the change.

controlling chaos (rudall30/

As I have written previously, both in FCW and elsewhere, the potential benefits of government reorganization also come with substantial risks. Reorganization rarely makes government measurably cheaper. Agency efficiency can take a serious beating while changes are being made. Perhaps most importantly, executives must guard against the problems that excessive tinkering can create.

And with agency reorganization plans expected to be released later this month, it's also worth revisiting the matter of downsizing or rightsizing. After all, a major driver of those reorgs will be reducing the federal workforce to save money.

The literature here is robust. Let me offer some suggestions drawn from that literature and also from my own past efforts to streamline government:

First, employers and line managers must be empowered to focus more on results and service to the citizens than on red tape and micro-management. Streamlining headquarters and regional offices where most of these control and oversight functions are located is essential. Additionally, reorganizations focused there are most likely to save money without cutting services.

Second, the federal field structure is in dire need of a comprehensive review -- not to drive one-off closures, but to create a citizen-services-driven, one-stop, technology-enhanced revision. There are over 30,000 federal field, district and regional offices spread throughout the United States (not including Department of Defense bases and installations). Almost 90 percent of these are under six cabinet agencies (the Departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Justices, Treasury, Transportation, and Interior).

The current field office structure was for the most part developed in the 1930’s to facilitate popular acceptance of New Deal legislation. Mostly unchanged since then, the field structure does not reflect substantial changes in government services rendered, citizen services demanded, or modern technology now available.

Third, it's time to reverse the trend of growing central management systems and controls. Many of these reviews and clearances have been put in place for well-meaning purposes. But the accretion of such controls has proven to be barnacle-like on our ship of state.

Fourth, agencies should avoid monopolies, de-layer and increase the span of control. This administration has been criticized for the slow pace of filling senior political positions. But academicians and good government reformers have argued for years the need to “flatten” government hierarchies. This presents an opportunity to turn a proposed weakness into a strength.

Fifth, as streamlining decisions are made, these guidelines used in the private sector may prove useful:

  • Cut to a plan, not to a number.
  • Do it quickly, and do it once.
  • Do it as deeply as necessary.
  • Redirect as many resources to the front lines as possible.

Sixth, agencies must lead the effort themselves. A central office, such as the Office of Management and Budget, has little chance of meaningfully determining what cuts should be made so the right culture changes occur and the wrong service reductions do not.

Seventh, agencies must be allowed to use separation incentives in order to permit them to delayer and reduce positions in targeted areas, while at the same time helping affected employees find another job.

Eighth, it's high time to restore the White House’s reorganization authority to provide for expedited review by Congress of presidential reorganization plans.

And finally, as I have noted previous, reorganizations can be disruptive and demoralizing. Rather than becoming lean and mean, organizations end up being lean and lame.

The best antidote to all the fear and fecklessness isn’t communication or compassion or empowerment or training or even eliminating useless work, offices and controls. While all those things are necessary, the most robust remedy for the reorganization blues is to devise a clear and credible plan for a modern, 21st century government.

There is no reason the government cannot operate with as much speed, responsiveness, and resiliency as the private sector. In fact, there is no reason government should not be the leader when it comes to technology, human capital management, and service delivery. If agencies seize that opportunity, the vast majority of the reorganized workforce will be on board.

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