The past half century has witnessed a slow, but steady thickening of the federal bureaucracy as Congress and presidents have added layer upon layer of political and career management to the hierarchy. The past six years have been no different. Despite the president’s promise to bring business-like thinking to the federal government, the Bush administration has overseen, or at the very least permitted, a significant expansion in both the height and width of the federal hierarchy. There have never been more layers at the top of government, nor more occupants at each layer.
The impact of the thickening is in the headlines regularly. Information must pass through layer upon layer before it reaches the top of the hierarchy, if it reaches the top at all, while guidance and oversight must pass through layer upon layer on the way to the frontlines, if it ever reaches the frontlines at all. It is little wonder that no one can be held accountable for what goes wrong or right in government, especially in a hierarchy where presidential appointees serve for 18-24 months on average, and information is often delivered by word of mouth through a process that has come to resemble the childhood game of telephone.
The evidence of increased thickening comes from my once-every-six-years inventory of the top jobs in the 15 departments of government. Using The Federal Yellow Book phone directory as a primary source, the inventory counts every management position in the five departmental leadership “compartments” headed by Senate-confirmed presidential appointees in each cabinet department: secretary, deputy secretary, under secretary, assistant secretary, and administrator. The inventory only includes titles that involve a direct link to one of the five Senate-confirmed positions—e.g., chief of staff to the secretary, associate deputy secretary, assistant under secretary, deputy assistant secretary, and associate administrator.
The 2004 analysis suggests that the Bush administration has added significantly to the thickening of government. Part of the growth is due to creation of the new Department of Homeland Security, which grew from just 3 layers and 3 occupants in the winter of 2003 (secretary, deputy secretary, and under secretary) to 21 layers and 146 occupants in the spring of 2004. But the thickening has occurred in almost every department, including many that are not involved in homeland security or the war on terrorism. Moreover, the increase would have been greater but for the significant thinning of the management ranks at the departments of Defense and Treasury, both of which obviously remain engaged in the war on terrorism.
Consider the following headlines from the most recent assessment, which will be published as part of a larger study the federal public service next year:
1. The federal hierarchy has never been taller than it is today. There were 17 different executive titles open for occupancy across the departments in 1960, 33 in 1992, 51 in 1998, and 64 in 2004. Although the Bush administration has clearly slowed the rate of increase, new titles are still being created at the rate of two per year. Roughly half of the executive titles involve career appointments, while the other half involve political appointments not subject to Senate confirmation. (See Table 1 for a list of all the titles currently open for occupancy.)
TABLE 1: LAYERS OPEN FOR OCCUPANCY IN 2004*
*The list includes all positions defined in statute as Executive Level I -V, and includes positions that are not necessarily called secretary, deputy secretary, under secretary, assistant secretary, and administrator titles. The assistant secretary list includes a long list of Executive Level IV titles, for example, including inspector general, chief financial officer, general counsel, assistant commandant, and so forth. Hence, some titles such as assistant assistant secretary sound odd, but actually refer to positions such as assistant inspector general, assistant general counsel, and so forth.
**Title exists in at least seven departments out of 15
It is also important to note that many of the layers exist in only one or two departments—some of the titles are merely trial balloons that will die for a lack of embrace, while others are just beginning to spread. Of the 64 titles open for occupancy somewhere in the government, 19 exist in at least seven or more departments, while another 6 exist in at least four departments. (See Table 2 for the complete inventory of layers and occupants in 1960, 1992, 1998, and 2004.)
2. The Defense Department currently has the federal government’s tallest hierarchy with 30 executive titles, followed by Transportation at 25, Agriculture, Interior, and Treasury at 24, and Commerce at 22. State had the flattest hierarchy at just 10 layers, in part because it has no administrator-level positions, followed by Housing and Urban Development at 15, again in part because it has no administrator-level positions, Veterans Affairs at 18, and Education at 19.
Former Brookings Expert
Fourteen departments added new executive titles between 1998 and 2004. Veterans Affairs topped the list with six additional titles, followed by Defense, Education, Energy, and Justice with four, and Labor with three. Treasury was the only department to flatten its hierarchy, dropping three executive titles during the period: chief of staff to the assistant secretary, associate deputy assistant secretary, and chief of staff to the assistant assistant secretary.
Like Treasury, Defense also eliminated three executive titles during the period: assistant under secretary, assistant chief of staff to the administrator, and chief of staff to the associate administrator. However, it also created seven new titles between 1998 and 2004, including its first-ever chief of staff to an undersecretary, chief of staff to an assistant secretary, deputy chief of staff to an assistant secretary, deputy chief of staff to a deputy assistant secretary, and deputy chief of staff to an administrator. The net gain was four.
3. The fastest spreading titles continue to be “alter-ego” deputies, including chiefs of staff to secretaries, deputy secretaries, under secretaries, deputy under secretaries, assistant secretaries, deputy assistant secretaries, associate deputy assistant secretaries, associate assistant secretaries, administrators, deputy administrators, associate administrators, and assistant administrators. Bluntly put, having a chief of staff has become a signal of one’s importance in the bureaucratic pecking order. Chiefs of staff are not mere minions—their job descriptions usually include de facto supervisory responsibilities within their units, and they often act as gatekeepers for their principal. Although many of these titles exist in only one or two departments, past experience suggests that they will spread quickly—the first chief of staff to a secretary was created in 1981, spread to 10 additional departments by 1992, and now exists in 14 of 15.
4. The federal hierarchy is also wider than it has ever been. The total number of senior title holders increased from 451 senior executives, political or career, in 1960 to 2,409 in 1992, 2,385 in 1998, and 2,592 in 2004. Although the Clinton administration added much more height to the hierarchy than the second Bush administration, the second Bush administration has added much more girth. Whereas the number of senior title holders fell by 1 percent between 1992 and 1998, albeit almost entirely because the Social Security Administration became an independent agency and was not counted in the 1998 inventory, the number increased by 9 percent between 1998 and 2004. My cursory review of the 1999 and 2000 Federal Yellow Books suggests that the vast majority of the increase must be attributed to the Bush administration.
5. Only four departments lost width between 1998 and 2004. Treasury cut the number of senior title holders by 30 percent, from 239 to 168, largely due to the homeland security reorganization, which stripped the department of the Customs Service and Secret Service; Defense cut the total number of senior title holders by 21 percent, from 361 to 284, largely due to deliberate streamlining; Energy dropped by 7 percent, from 145 to 135; and Health and Human Services, fell by 4 percent, from 303 to 292.
As of 2004, Agriculture was the widest department with 299 senior title holders, followed by HHS at 292, Defense at 284, and Justice at 221. Veterans Affairs was the thinnest department at 71 senior title holders, followed by HUD and Labor both at 120, Energy at 135, Interior at 140, State at 149, Treasury at 168, and Commerce at 173.
When Defense and Treasury are removed from the inventory, the total width of the federal hierarchy increased by 20 percent between 1998 and 2004, rising by 355 positions from 1,785 to 2,140. The increase is particularly significant when compared to the 1992-1998 period, when the girth of government basically held steady because of Vice President Gore’s reinventing campaign. Under the reinventing agenda, all federal agencies were asked to expand the ratio of supervisors to subordinates from 1:7 to 1:15. The Bush administration’s management agenda has no position on the thickening of government, which may have given departments de facto permission to widen their hierarchies.
6. Homeland security and the war on terrorism are not the only, or even primary reason for the increased width. Of the seven departments that exceeded the average 9 increase, only two have an explicit role in either issue: Justice (up 13 percent, or 25 positions) and State (up 14 percent, or 18 positions). The other five do not: Veterans Affairs (up 45 percent, or 22 positions), Agriculture (up 24 percent, or 58 positions), Education (up 20 percent, or 22 positions), Transportation (up 16 percent, or 27 positions), and Labor (up slightly over 9 percent, or 10 positions).
The Department of Homeland Security has grown from an obviously frail hierarchy in its early days to the ninth tallest executive hierarchy among the 15 departments, and the eighth widest. It now has 146 senior executives, and 21 layers. It is important to note that Homeland Security also has the third largest workforce, which suggests that its hierarchy is much leaner that it could be when compared to other large departments such as Agriculture. Ironically, the two departments with the largest workforces, Defense and Veterans Affairs, have very different hierarchies—Defense has the tallest hierarchy in government and the third largest girth, while Veterans Affairs has the third flattest hierarchy and the thinnest width. Homeland Security has taken the middle course, and does not appear to have plans for further thickening.
There are at least four explanations for the long-term trend: (1) an ever-expanding federal agenda, (2) the use of promotions in lieu of pay increases as a reward for senior career executives, (3) the effort to control the federal bureaucracy through ever-denser networks of political appointees, and (4) the creation of new titles such as the chief information officer and inspector general by Congress. Presidents still believe that more leaders is always better, civil servants still view titles as an important reward, and Congress still believes that creating new agencies is the path to policy success.
Whether driven from the bottom or top, the thickening of the hierarchy has obvious impacts on the operation of government, most notably in the movement of information upward and flow of command downward. And its impact on public confidence is obvious. No one is ever held accountable for government performance because no one can be held accountable, whether because single vacancies anywhere in the chain of command can produce long delays in the movement of information and guidance, or because each stop in the hierarchy creates at least some delay, however brief it might be.
Unlike the private sector, which extols the virtues of less is more when it comes to management layers, Congress and presidents continue to behave as if new layers of management and more managers at each layer somehow improve accountability and performance. In fact, more is actually less when it comes to making sure the frontlines of government have the resources and guidance they need to faithfully execute the laws.