From Pentagons to Pyramids: Whacking at Bloat

July 1, 2001

The Bush administration has launched its campaign to flatten the federal hierarchy, taking the first step toward bridging the gulf between citizens and their leaders. Under an executive order issued May 8, every federal agency must prepare a restructuring plan designed to “flatten the federal hierarchy, increase the span of control, reduce the time it takes to make decisions and reduce the layers in government.”

Who could disagree? After all, the ratio of reviewers to doers in government has never been higher. Convinced that more managers means better management, and desperate to close the gap between public and private pay, agencies have added layer upon layer of middle managers over the decades. And convinced that more political appointees equals more leadership and accountability, Presidents and Congress have added layer upon layer on top of that.

Along the way, the federal organization chart changed from a traditional bureaucratic pyramid in which the vast majority of employees work at the bottom to a bloated pentagon in which most employees work at the middle and top. In 1997, for the first time in civil service history, the number of mid-level employees outnumbered lower-level workers and front-line staff. No wonder a third of next year’s 76 million calls to the Social Security Administration’s toll-free telephone number will result in a missed connection.

President Bush is not the first to promise a slimmer government. President Reagan launched his five-year “bulge project” in 1983, collecting a veritable ton of information on the shape of the hierarchy along the way.

President Clinton launched his own streamlining campaign 10 years later. The effort seemed to work. Led by Vice President Al Gore and his reinventing government crew, the number of middle managers dropped by 40,000 between 1993 and 1998. But like an image in a fun-house mirror, the thinning was mostly an illusion. The Clinton administration added at least 16 new titles at the top of government, creating as many new layers during its two terms in office than the seven previous administrations combined, while the layers continued to grow at the middle. The absolute number of middle managers may have dropped, but most were merely reclassified into nonmanagerial jobs such as “management support specialist” and “team leader” that contained de facto management duties.

The Reagan-Clinton experience suggests three potential flaws in the campaign being waged by the Bush administration. First, by ignoring the political layers of the hierarchy, the Bush flattening order misses at least a third of the bloat that it claims interferes with citizen service. Political appointees may account for a tiny fraction of the total federal workforce, but they occupy between a quarter and two-fifths of the bureaucratic layers in the individual agencies. Although one can understand why a newly minted administration might resist a cut in the number of patronage jobs, political appointees are just as serious an impediment to service and speed as career managers. Either layers are a problem or they aren’t.

Second, by using span-of-control as its preferred measure of thickening, the Bush flattening order is open to the same shell game that plagued the Clinton campaign. Unfortunately, neither the Office of Management and Budget nor the Office of Personnel Management has the capacity to monitor implementation. Hobbled by their own hierarchies, both agencies long ago lost the capacity to track how agencies actually create or dismantle their bureaucracies.

Third, by requiring agencies to provide a detailed workforce plan within six weeks, Bush has created a goal that cannot be met. Most agencies simply do not have the human capital to do human capital planning. The federal government’s human resources offices were decimated by Gore’s reinventing campaign.

The Bush administration will never flatten the bureaucracy by ignoring the political hierarchy, using easily manipulated measures, or asking agencies for data they simply don’t have. Rather, the way to flatten government is to red-line the layers and start cutting. The Bush administration should talk to the air traffic controllers, hospital nurses, Social Security claims representatives, forest and park rangers, Internal Revenue Service tax agents, immigration and customs inspectors and toll-free telephone operators it says it wants to help. Then it should ask every person who stands between those front-line employees and the President to justify his or her job. Flattening really is that simple. Only by exposing the chain of command, formal and informal, political and civil service, managerial and non-managerial, and cutting it down link by link, will the Bush administration fare any better than its predecessors in flattening the government.

Paul C. Light is Vice President and Director of Governmental Studies at the Brookings Institution and Senior Adviser to The Presidential Appointee Initiative.