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Thickening Government

Federal Hierarchy and the Diffusion of Accountability

By Paul C. Light

Government is under enormous pressure to change. Call it reinventing, reengineering, or plain old change, but the mandate remains the same: produce more with less, and satisfy the customer while doing it. Yet, successful reform must involve more than exhortation and slogans. Paul Light argues that a failure to pay attention to the thickening of government over the past half century may doom any reinventing effort. The federal government has never had so many leaders. There are more layers of management between the top and bottom of government, with more administrative units and occupants at each layer. Bill Clinton is further from the frontlines of government than any president in American history. If the past decades are any indication, he will exit a presidency that is even thicker. Light presents a revealing look at how thick the bureaucracy really is, how and why thickening occurs, what difference it might make, and what can be done to both reverse the process and keep the thickening from growing back. Light shows how the management layers between the top and bottom of government—between air traffic controllers and the Secretary of Transportation, food inspectors and the Secretary of Agriculture, and so on—have steadily increased. In 1960, for example, John F. Kennedy’s senior-most appointments came in four layers: secretary, under secretary, assistant secretary, and deputy assistant secretary. By 1992, the number of layers had tripled. In the meantime, the number of occupants at each layer grew geometrically; the number of assistant secretaries jumped from 81 to 212. A government of managers means the president has very little direct access or control over what happens far below, a basic problem of accountability. Information gets distorted on the way up, and guidance gets lost on the way down. Thickening often creates so many bureaucratic baffles that no one can be held accountable for any decision; mid-level workers may have so many bosses that they effectively have none. Light concludes that practically nothing by way of quality management, service-government, or employee involvement can work with these towering government agencies. But practically nothing will fail if a radical “down- layering” is undertaken now.

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