Loose Lips and Bloated Bureaucracies

June 21, 1999

How can Washington prevent future security breaches like the one at the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory? Last week, former Sen. Warren Rudman, chairman of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and head of a special investigating panel, recommended a “new semi-autonomous agency” with the Department of Energy that would have the kind of “a clear mission, streamlined bureaucracy and drastically simplified lines of authority and accountability.”

Mr. Rudman is right to focus Congress and the president on the structure of the department, not the failures of one or two key bureaucrats. For the Energy Department has never had more layers of management than it does now—and its leadership has never been more disconnected from what is happening at its bottom. Secretary Bill Richardson last week appointed a security “czar,” Gen. Eugene Habiger, to serve as the fulcrum for a newly rationalized chain of command. But the czar may merely add one more layer to a meandering, mostly unlinked collection of overseers who can easily evade responsibility when things go wrong.

At the department’s founding in 1979, its secretary, deputy secretary, under secretary, and assistant secretary “compartments” contained 10 layers and 56 senior executives. By 1998 those four compartments had thickened to 18 layers and 143 senior executives, including an assortment of chiefs of staff and other alter-ego deputies who fill in whenever their bosses are out.

The problem in such overlayered, top-heavy organizations is not a lack of information on possible wrongdoing. Lots of people knew about the vulnerabilities at Los Alamos. The problem is finding someone who is ultimately responsible for taking action. Which department executive does Congress hold accountable for the security breach? The secretary? His chief of staff? One of the two deputy chiefs of staff? How about the deputy secretary? Under Secretary? Assistant secretary for Defense programs? For environmental management? For science? How about the principal deputy assistant secretary for military applications? Deputy assistant secretary for research and development? Defense laboratories office director? Perhaps the assistant secretary for strategic computing and simulation? Or the inspector general, deputy inspector general, or assistant inspector general?

The answer is everyone and no one. And the diffusion of accountability continues down into the University of California, the contractor that supervises the Los Alamos laboratory and three other DOE facilities. Whom does the federal government hold accountable at the university? The president? The senior vice president for business and finance? Vice president for financial management? Associate vice president for human resources and benefits? Assistant vice president for laboratory administration? The executive director for laboratory operations? Director of contracts management? The manager for facilities management and safeguards and security?

No wonder it takes a crisis to focus attention. With 15 to 25 layers just to get from the top of the department to the top of Los Alamos, information is bound to get lost along the way and no one is accountable when it does.

The Department of Energy is hardly alone in the senior-level thickening. Forced by repeated hiring freezes to choose between protecting the bottom of government and bulking up its middle and top, federal departments and agencies have mostly sacrificed the bottom. In 1997, for the first time in civil service history, middle level employees outnumbered bottom-level ones. Nearly 200,000 senior and middle-level managers have retired from government in the past few years, and almost everyone next in line has been promoted—all at a cost of $3 billion in voluntary buyouts for what turned out to be a big retirement party with no visible impact on the basic structure of government.

Some of the lower-level jobs have disappeared forever with the arrival of time-saving technologies. Others have migrated upward into the middle-level ranks as professional and technical employees have added lower-level tasks to their higher-paid duties. Still others have migrated into the federal government’s contract workforce, which numbered some 5.6 million employees in 1996.

Meanwhile, the top of government has grown ever taller. From 1993 to 1998, federal departments created 16 new senior-level titles, including principal assistant deputy under secretary, associate deputy assistant secretary, chief of staff to the under secretary, assistant chief of staff to the administrator, chief of staff to the assistant administrator and let’s not forget deputy to the deputy secretary.

Spies will be spies, and the Los Alamos espionage probably would have occurred regardless of the width or height of the government hierarchy. But the breach would have been noticed earlier and closed sooner had the top been closer to the bottom. If Congress wants to increase the odds that nuclear secrets will be kept in the future, it could do no better than to order a wholesale flattening of the Energy Department hierarchy. Then it should do the same with the rest of the federal government.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of The True Size of Government (Brookings, 1999)