Can government reorg produce real efficiency?

Tuesday - 2/15/2011, 4:40pm EST

Beryl Radin, scholar in residence, American University's School of Public Policy

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In his State of the Union address, President Obama called for a government reorganization to increase efficiency and eliminate redundancies that have built up over the last 60 years.

The proposal is not a new strategy. Most presidents in the last century have used structural reorganization in one way or another, said Beryl Radin, scholar in residence at American University's School of Public Policy. Radin co-authored the book Federal Government Reorganization: A Policy and Management Perspective.

As lawmakers struggle to fix the budget, President Obama said in his address that government must be more "competent and efficient."

Radin argues, however, that efficiency is not a guaranteed outcome of a government reorganization.

"There is almost no evidence that reorganizations lead to cost-savings. And, in fact, there are some people who argue that the disruptions that occur at the beginning of a reorganization can be costly in money as well as time," Radin said.

She added that the assertion that a reorganization leads to more effective programs is also a problematic argument.

"It's extremely difficult to determine what criteria you will use as the basis for identifying elements that should go into a new organizational structure," Radin said.

President Obama used salmon as an example of the complexities of government oversight. Radin said the salmon example models how policies across government can conflict - some programs want to preserve the fish, while others promote selling and yet others develop scientific research.

"What you see is that programs often have their feet in multiple policy areas," she said.

If a reorganization is so challenging - and does not necessarily produce the intended outcomes - then why do administrations continue to push for it?

Radin said a reorganization is sometimes an alternative way to change policy.

"It seems often that reorganization issues are less volatile than clear-cut policy change," she said. "that doesn't always happen, but it's a way of circumventing when you don't think you have either the authority or the support for over policy change."

A reorganization is also a way for presidents to respond to public calls for change, Radin said.

In the private sector, reorganization is driven by a clear goal - profit. In the public sector, the goals are not so clear. Radin said reorganization, therefore, must be driven from policy goals - not general principles of good management or what she calls a "one size fits all approach."