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Budget cuts at DOD: Gates to the rescue

Defense Secretary Robert Gates deserves the courage award for announcing that he intends to cut his department's workforce, streamline the hierarchy, and close a popular base in Virginia. He is the first senior Obama administration officer to use his statutory authority to take a first step toward the big-ticket reform that will produce higher performance and productivity.

Gates is under intense pressure to trim the defense budget. He clearly understands that there is money to be found in bureaucratic reform. Although no one knows for sure what the net savings might be in a government-wide effort, I have estimated that there could be $1 trillion in comprehensive reform. Gates has taken the first step, joining the beleaguered Postal Service in taking on the byzantine federal organization chart.

Admirable though the defense reforms are, Gates missed several big-ticket opportunities for deeper reform. They should be on his future to-do list.

First, he needs to take on the needless layering of political appointees and career civil-service executives at the top of the department. Yes, he has promised to eliminate the number of generals and admirals who occupy senior posts. But he has yet to tackle the proliferation of political layers.

The Defense Department has always been a leader in creating executive posts. It created the first deputy assistant secretary posts, for example. There were just 78 deputy assistant secretaries in 1960, compared to more than 530 today. Defense also created the first chiefs of staff, which have spread through the federal hierarchy like kudzu.

Some of these posts are no doubt essential for maintaining the chain of command, but there is also room for trimming. Gates should let his fingers do the walking down through the Defense Department's phonebook and start crossing out titles. Because most of the posts are filled without Senate confirmation, he has ample authority to simply delete the jobs.

If anyone has the need for greater clarity of command, it is Gates. As currently codified through departmental memoranda, the Defense Department's hierarchy is one of the thickest in government. Convinced that more leaders equaled more leadership, past secretaries of Defense never met a title they did not like.

However, strong leadership is not in the number of layers or leaders per layers, but in the ability to drive a clear mission all the way to the bottom of the organization and outward to its contractors and vendors. Whereas many private companies, including defense contractors, operate with ten layers or less between the top and bottom of their hierarchies, no one knows just how many stand between Gates and the front-lines. It is time to count.

Second, Gates should take a look at the proliferation of managers and supervisors throughout the department. It is not just generals and admirals who should go; there are layers of needless command all the way down to the foxholes. It is not just senior executives who should go, either. There are too many management layers, too.

Ronald Reagan tried to cut these middle-level jobs, as did Vice President Al Gore. But neither quite succeeded. Reagan's "bulge project" was poorly designed and executed. It was beyond blunt with thin-air targets for cutting all middle-level employees, managers or not. Although Gore cut 40,000 management posts government-wide, he did so by reclassifying managers into non-managerial posts. Many of the posts survived through the invention of new managerial titles such as "team leader."

Gates could use the coming retirements of military and civilian managers as a tool for thoughtful cutting. There is no need to fill every vacancy. As management guru Peter Drucker told the 2003 National Commission on the Public Service in a handwritten note, his single recommendation for improving government involved these retirements. Leave each job open for six months, he scribbled in his near-end-of-life note, and the federal government would soon discover that at least half of the jobs were unnecessary.

Gates should adopt a similar strategy. Instead of assuming that every job is essential, why not assume every job is non-essential. Evaluate each job, or at the very least its classification, and ask why it exists, who it serves, and whether it actually contributes to higher performance. Yes, cutting federal jobs in the midst of a jobless recession will be difficult. But it would improve productivity and performance, not to mention save money that could be reinvested in training, equipment, and reaction times. Every job, managerial and not, should bear the burden of proof.

How ironic that a Bush administration appointee took this first bold step to reform. Gates is not a Democrat or Republican per se, but his career included a series of appointments by the Reagan and two Bush administrations. It is time for his Democratic colleagues to follow his lead.

At least for now, however, Democrats are terrified of comprehensive reform. They are making a momentum mistake. Whether helped by the economic boom of the 1990s and/or Gore's reinventing campaign, the Democratic Party actually became the public's choice for managing government.

The party's 47 percent to 30 percent edge at the end of the Bush administration is now gone. The Republican Party is now ever so slightly ahead. Gates is offering a first step for blunting the public opinion. The Obama administration should be listening. If it won't engage in the flattening of government, the Republicans will.

By Paul Light

 |  August 11, 2010; 10:17 AM ET |  Category:  Federal government leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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