Reorganization: What Happens and So What?

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Since reorganization is a perennial issue in the Federal government, one would expect substantial academic literature to exist on this matter. While there is a considerable body of work on the histories of reorganization efforts (especially the various executive branch commissions), analysis of existing organizational arrangements (narrative pieces bemoaning overlap and duplication), and on what best might be called the politics of reorganization, the relationship between institutional and procedural reform and the policy output of the bureaucracy remains almost wholly unresearched.

Indeed, a review of the current state of actual knowledge concerning reorganizations and their effects is an unrewarding task, for knowledge of this kind is impressively slight. Dean Mann and Ted Anagnoson concluded, after an examination of the reorganization literature, that there was little explicit work on the results of reorganizations:

Almost nobody has asked the question: What difference have these reorganization plans and executive orders made? How have they been implemented and with what results?

The focus of this article is on these specific topics. It draws from my own work in the government not only on various organizational study teams, but more importantly from being deeply involved in creating two new agencies in government and abolishing two others.

As noted above, the what, what’s wrong, and to a certain extent, the what ought to be done, have been adequately covered–to say the least. But the specific consequences of restructuring efforts have been largely ignored. Let me begin this undertaking by assessing accomplishments in terms of the “goals” of reorganization. Reorganizations are usually designed to:

  • Simplify and streamline;
  • Bring about greater efficiency and economy;
  • Place program oversight under a single administrator;
  • Help make possible effective program management, sound financial control, and coherent delivery of services by consolidating program areas badly fragmented in the existing organization structure;
  • Simplify and strengthen the linkage between policy development and program administration;
  • Eliminate program fragmentation and end confusing organizational divisions;
  • Prevent fraud and abuse;
  • Achieve savings;
  • Reduce staff; and,
  • Make (the entity) more responsive to the millions of Americans that the Congress has directed (the entity) to serve.

These goals or objectives of reorganization seem quite consistent with traditional public administration doctrine and characteristic of what Harold Seidman regarded as “administrative orthodoxy.” It is somewhat difficult, therefore, to measure success in terms of such “proverbs” or “organizational platitudes,” but let’s seek to dig a bit deeper.

A number of the goals reflect a concern with structure (e.g., simplify and streamline, efficiency and economy, consolidating program areas, simplify linkages, end organizational divisions, and so on). However, during reorganizations, while a number of consolidations occur, numerous others remain. This is not surprising since in a government with multiple objectives and thousands of programs it is likely impossible to organize so that issues do not cross organizational lines. In fact, there probably is no way to structure the government so that all programs with interrelated objectives are in only one component. Certain organizational efficiencies may occur, but a number of others remain–untouched or, in some cases, caused by the reorganization. Reorganizations end certain duplications or program overlaps while creating new ones.

Other goals reflect a major concern of traditional public administration doctrine: economy and efficiency. But tracking agency savings, as almost any seasoned budget officer would tell you, is “dealing with funny money.” Most reorganization assessments seem to verify Rufus Miles’ assertion that economy as a ground for major reorganization is a will-o’-the-wisp.

In one of the departmental reorganizations I staffed, the secretary said as he announced the reorganization:

I recognize that it is far easier to announce a fundamental reorganization than to implement proposed plans adequately and to change materially the way in which our money is spent and our citizens are served.

He was addressing an issue that has received little attention: implementation of organizational reforms.  Donald Van Meter and Carl Van Horn have offered four reasons for the neglect of policy implementation:

  1. There is the naïve assumption that implementation follows automatically after policy formulation and that results do not deviate from expectations.
  2. The implementation process is assumed to be a series of mundane decisions and interactions.
  3. The focus on analysis of policy alternatives and rational policymaking has excluded attention “of the lower echelons of agencies responsible for implementation.”
  4. The enormous difficulties involved in studying implementation.

These same reasons appear valid for explaining the neglect of reorganization implementation. While the constraints are formidable, what can be said about this important matter.

Rufus Miles has noted that reorganizations have traumatic effects that should be carefully weighed. Of course, as Miles noted, organizations “vary widely in the degree to which they disrupt the skein of human relationships that are the communications and nerve networks of every organization.”

Some reorganizations cause little or no disruption, while others are traumatic. But any reorganized agency undertakes a heavy load of bureaucratic activities. People have to be reassigned; procedures have to be developed; policies have to be established; money has to be spent in a way that can be made accountable; office space and furniture have to be obtained. Personnel has to review proposed organization structures, review and rewrite position descriptions, fill new and existing vacancies, transfer employees, handle union concerns, and advise employees of their rights during reorganization.

The magnitude of these endeavors can only be understood by someone familiar with the complexity and arduousness of the Federal personnel system. Similar challenges exist in budget, finance, grants, acquisition, security, and other administrative services.

Implementation is almost considered to follow automatically, a rather common occurrence, according to I.M. Destler and the Government Accountability Office (GAO):

For reorganization, as for any other change, implementation is the bottom line. Without it, the whole exercise is show and symbolism. Yet in real-life attempts at reorganization, serious concern with implementation is typically too little and too late. Enormous attention is devoted to analyzing and deciding what changes should be made. The problem of getting from here to there is addressed only belatedly. To paraphrase Erwin Hargrove, implementation often seems the “missing link” in reorganization.

So what lesson can we draw from previous reorganizations? First, reorganization is not likely to make government measurably cheaper. Second, unwarranted stress should not be placed on efficiency as grounds for reorganization. The simple fact is that public administration and organizational theorists know very little about what type of reorganization promotes efficiency; in some cases they have turned to consolidation, in other cases, to decentralization. Third, government reorganizers must pay special attention to the problems that can be caused by excessive tinkering. As Miles has noted.

Traumatic reorganizations may be analogized to surgical operations. It is important that their purposes be carefully assessed and a thoughtful judgment reached that the wielding of the surgical knife is going to achieve a purpose that, after a period of recuperation, will be worth the trauma inflicted. And the surgical knife should not be wielded again and again before the healing process from earlier incisions has been completed.

Finally, this article should make obvious that since it is only through effective implementation that adopted reorganization proposals can bring about results; implementation is a crucial part of the reorganization process. And, it appears that implementation strategy cannot be left until after a reorganization program has been approved.

Alan P. Balutis
About Alan P. Balutis
Alan Balutis has held senior roles in academia, the Federal government, and both the private and non-profit sectors. He has written extensively about government and management reform in both academic and trade publications. He recently left Cisco Systems. where he headed their Public Sector Strategy and Consulting practice.