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Salmon Savings May Be Tough For Obama

In his State of the Union address this week, President Obama called for a reorganization of government agencies to cut down on redundancies and save money. But history suggests such savings may be elusive.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais
/
AP
In his State of the Union address this week, President Obama called for a reorganization of government agencies to cut down on redundancies and save money. But history suggests such savings may be elusive.

David Osborne is a consultant who scored a surprise best-seller nearly 20 years ago with a book called Reinventing Government.

So what was his reaction when President Obama called for a new effort to streamline federal agencies in his State of the Union address Tuesday?

"My heart sank when he started talking about reorganization," Osborne says, "because it's every politician's knee-jerk reaction to making government work better."

Trying to make government more efficient by consolidating agencies that share similar or overlapping functions seems to make sense, but management experts such as Osborne argue that reshuffling the deck leads less to efficiency than to years of turf battles and, many times, declining performance.

"It's not so much that getting the organization right doesn't help, but it's hugely costly," says John Donahue, a lecturer at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "It's more expensive than most people anticipate."

The Salmon Principle

Obama got a good laugh when he pointed out the seeming absurdity of salmon having to deal with separate federal bureaucracies as they swim out to sea. "The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they're in salt water."

The reality is that it's not salmon being regulated, but the type of body of water they're swimming in.

"It's true that salmon may be treated by two or three different Cabinet departments," says Donald Kettl, dean of the public policy school at the University of Maryland, "but you don't want to have a Department of Salmon that deals with salmon wherever they live, and then a separate Department of Cod."

The bigger point is that Interior and Commerce have different priorities when it comes to salmon. One is trying to preserve the fish, while the other is trying to promote its sale. Putting salmon management under one roof won't change that dynamic.

Pulling In One Direction

When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, part of the explanation for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's poor response is that it had been uncomfortably shoe-horned into the larger DHS structure.

It's common for government agencies to work at seeming cross-purposes. To take another edible example, parts of the government concern themselves with food safety from the point of view of the consumer, while others worry about the interests of farmers.

When government agencies are combined to put such functions together, the differing roles they have to play are usually preserved.

It's not just that agency officials keep their jobs and hew to their old sense of mission, says Beryl Radin, a public administration professor at American University. People come to expect a certain level of service, whether responsibility falls on an independent agency or a small division of a larger department.

"Each of the programs has their own interest groups and constituents," she says. "It almost doesn't matter what the organizational chart looks like."

A New Sense Of Mission

Governmental reorganizations sometimes happen because presidents — or governors — want to cut through such clutter and get agencies working together on a new set of priorities. But that doesn't always work out so well.

The example cited repeatedly by management experts is the creation nearly a decade ago of the Department of Homeland Security. Kettl, the Maryland public policy dean, says it "was a terribly important symbolic step that we were going to address the 'connect-the-dots' problem" after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by bringing together 22 formerly separate agencies concerned with safety.

But despite sharing a common letterhead, many of the old agencies still operate as nearly independent fiefdoms, protected to some extent by the dozens of congressional subcommittees that have had a hand in DHS oversight.

A Decade Of Distraction

Others have lost their previous ability to react quickly and independently. When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, part of the explanation for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's poor response is that it had been uncomfortably shoe-horned into the larger DHS structure, says David Osborne.

"It was part of a big, 170,000-person bureaucracy," he says, "and key decisions had to go up a chain of command and wait for word to come down from the top, and that was paralyzing."

The same impulse to get all of the oars pulling in the same direction led to the creation of a new umbrella organization to oversee intelligence efforts, at the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission. That effort, too, has since been criticized.

"The reorganization of the intelligence agencies is not as famous a disappointment as DHS," says Jack Donahue of Harvard, "but that's because a lot of the evidence is classified."

Failure To Achieve Savings

Obama framed the salmon problem as part of a larger project to make government more efficient at a time when funding is increasingly tight. But past experience suggests that reorganizations are not a great way to save money.

That's true at every level of government. The same forces that make it hard for agencies to come together when put under new management also make it hard to cut spending. Old program responsibilities have a way of lingering on.

"Executives say we're going to be more efficient and save money if we combine departments," says Mitchell Bean, a budget analyst with the Michigan Legislature, "and then that way we'll be more efficient and save money if we split up departments."

History is filled with examples of government reorganizations generating more frustration than efficiency. "After the armed services were broomed together after World War II," Donahue says, "the optimists say that it took them three decades to work together, and the pessimists say they never have."

The Grunt Work Of Management

Presidents and governors can get a lot of publicity for seeking to address top-level priorities by creating a new department, or by promising to reduce government waste by eliminating duplicative agencies.

But management experts say real savings are more likely to be found in the mundane, everyday work of holding agency officials accountable for meeting broad policy goals — "changing the dynamic from moving the deck chairs around to improving services," says Cynthia Eisenhauer, a former Iowa state official who helped advise Obama's 2008 campaign on government reorganization.

"The basic lesson is that if you're looking to save a lot of money through restructuring government agencies, there's not a lot of money to be found," says Kettl, the Maryland dean. "There's not an obvious reason that consolidating regulation of salmon is going to make the world a better place."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.