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The fog of government: What to do about bureaucratic overlap

The Government Accountability Office just released a blockbuster report that may yet drive bureaucratic reform to the top of the budget-cutting agenda. The 345-page report is as dry as toast, but might just be the document to drive a real overhaul of the federal bureaucracy and produce a government that works better and costs less.

The report offers the first comprehensive analysis of the duplication and overlap across the federal budget I have ever seen. It's all been anecdotal up to this point, but GAO has the data: 80 programs for economic development; 100 programs for surface transportation; 7 departments and agencies working on U.S.-Mexican border water quality and 20 involved in managing federal cars, trucks and airplanes; two dozen presidential appointees running programs to prevent bioterrorism; the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives still working in separate silos on controlling explosives; 15 agencies assigned to food safety; 44 programs for employment and training programs; 54 programs for financial literacy; 82 programs for teacher quality; and 18 for food assistance. The list goes on and on.

"This report will make us look like jackasses," Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla) said in advance of the release. He was right. Working in their own antiquated silos, Congress has created a mess. Obama was undeniably funny in joking about salmon regulation in his State of the Union address, still the GAO report is anything but a joke. GAO didn't assign a total cost to the silliness, but it's got to be huge.

The duplication and overlap cost more than money. No wonder citizens are often confused about who's in charge, and who can be held accountable for what goes right or wrong. Presidential appointees are rarely fired for their role in major meltdowns such as last summer's egg recall; agencies are rarely disciplined or stripped of their responsibilities; and budgets are never cut.

So how did all this overlap come about in the first place? Turning back to Obama's salmon joke, all streams lead to Capitol Hill and the longstanding effort to take credit for launching new agencies and programs dealing with the problem du jour. Want some real duplication and overlap, not to mention antiquated organizations? Look at the congressional committee structure and the constant flow of lobbying money to prized slices of the budget.

Presidents are part of the problem too. Every program is assigned its own leaders and management layers. Presidents have never been more distant from the bottom of government where the goods are delivered; and, what's more, they have never had a political appointee they couldn't defend, even though the average appointee stays just 18 to 24 months.

Presidents have it wrong. Leadership isn't about the number of leaders who serve you. It is about clarity. War fighters constantly worry about the fog of war, but presidents operate in a fog of management where more leaders equals less leadership.

Congress may be the Constitution's confusers-in-chief, but presidents are supposed to faithfully execute the laws. As the Constitution's administrators-in-chief, they're the ones who are supposed to do the heavy lifting on making government work.

Every president since World War II has promised a government that works--Jimmy Carter even promised a government as good as the people. But it hasn't quite worked out that way. Except for Vice President Al Gore who stuck with his reinventing government for a solid eight years, most presidents have been too timid to take on the big-ticket issues.

Unfortunately, bureaucratic reform is the classic MEGO issue--my eyes glaze over. No one gets reelected for streamlining the bureaucracy, pushing resources and workers down to the bottom, or cutting the contract workforce down to size.

That's all beginning to change as budget hawks and doves alike see real savings through reform. It's high time. We've known for decades that this kind of diffusion costs money, if only through the wasteful administrative costs embedded in each duplicative program. We've also known that citizens are frustrated--how many phone calls do they need just to find the right program?

Obama promised an overhaul in last month's State of the Union Address, but he still doesn't get it. Treating the overlap is no doubt important and a big money saver, but it's only the symptom of a much larger problem.

Instead of defining overhaul as a few quick hits, perhaps it's time for Obama to visit the White House garage for a tutorial on what overhaul actually means--I rather suspect he has never done one. Webster's Dictionary defines it as "to renovate, remake, revise or renew thoroughly."

Congress and Obama should get moving--bureaucratic reform might just be the issue that prevents the shutdown now scheduled for the end of the month. By my own back-of-the-envelope calculation, we're talking about $1 trillion in potential savings. That ain't chicken feed, though Congress and Obama would be hard pressed to find out just which federal programs monitor that. Obama has to take the lead. Congress simply cannot do it on its own--that's how we got in this mess in the first place.

By Paul Light

 |  March 3, 2011; 9:22 AM ET |  Category:  Economic crisis , Federal government leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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U.S. AID TEAM needs sent to America!! da!? - 60-Million U.S. CITIZENS Living in "POVERTY",-- and the CONGRESS does Zilch- NOTHING!! - FOOD & GAS Prices going UP Like Crazy,-- and the CONGRESS is still in $BED with Big 'OIL'! - Remove these 'TRAITORS'!! -- And the Most SUFFERING of OUR' CITIZENS,-- the DISABLED & ELDERLY Living in POVERTY,- get NO "COLA"! -- HOW DISGRACEFUL of this and the last 3 CONGRESS's!! -- They should be hiding in a closet. - These 'TURN-COAT' COWARDS - Supported the Economic RAPIST $BANKsters,-- and still none are in PRISON!! -- "WAKE-UP" Voters, and Stop Voting for this 2-Party Criminal Cartel- owned by Globalist Elitist $$BANKster THUGS!!!

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Posted by: srteee | March 8, 2011 9:48 AM

There is one thing all agencies agree upon and do in the same way. They rig selections so that friends of the senior employees are hired and make sure that veterans are not hired. The senior federal civil servants are typically non-veterans with marginal qualifications, who appoint anyone they wish to jobs requiring neither ability nor any sort of work. Civil service jobs used to require scoring one of the three highest grades on a competitive examination. Now, there are so many ways for dispensing with the competitive examination requirement that anyone can be hired for anything without demonstrating any qualifications as long as he knows the right people. For example, through recent administrative appeals, I learned that the Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey, had appointed a considerable number of supervisory scientists at the GS-15 level, who are supposedly equivalent to full college professors. For such a job with a non-government employer, a candidate is usually expected to have earned a PhD, authored a considerable number of scientific publications, and supervised scientists who were successfully completing cutting-edge research projects. More than half of the persons appointed in the selections by the USGS which were reviewed by the Merit System Protection Board had not even earned a master's degree. The majority had not authored even one scientific publication, and none had ever supervised another scientist's research. When the question of examiniation scores was raised, the selecting officials unanimously agreed that they did not like examinations and did not consider the scores. Veterans were never selected because the selecting officials were non-veterans and did not like having any limitations placed on who they could appoint. Obviously, such agencies do not successfully complete any kind of useful work, but they keep paychecks coming to the untalented friends of the untalented public officials running the agencies. The question is whether assigning a job to seven agencies, none of which is capable of doing that job, is really worse than assigning it to only one agency, which is also incapable of performing it. The difference is that seven teams of drones are permitted to utilize their personal connections to obtain big salaries in the first case, while only one team of drones receives big salaries in the second case. Since most senior civil servants view jobs as a way of distributing money to their personal friends, then a much greater number of friends can be supported if seven agencies are doing nothing than if only one agency is accomplishing the same thing.

Posted by: cwheckman | March 7, 2011 8:14 PM

Prof Light Weight.....nothing new under the sun here....looks like Light Weight has fan boy support at the Post.....

Posted by: josephfranklyn | March 6, 2011 5:06 PM

What? No mention of the Grace Commission from Reagan's years? Though some small parts of it were actually worked, I'm pretty sure most of it was quickly and quietly dropped.

I hold no hope for a different outcome this time.

Posted by: okidutmsvaco | March 4, 2011 9:24 PM

If you didn't notice, this is not the first time that this type of report has come out. In the early 2000's, a similar report highlighted many of the same issues, but was ignored by congress.

Posted by: happytravelling | March 4, 2011 7:20 AM

Consolidation is the strawman of government reform. Do you want the same Agency inspecting imported food searching for smuggled nuclear material? Our agency overhauled and consolidated IT services, now our servers in in one time zone, our helpdesk in another, and I sit in a third time zone.

Posted by: tianyisun | March 4, 2011 7:03 AM

And that's just the fed, then consider state, local, quazi-legislative orgs. No wonder America is in a daze of confusion. TOO MANY GOVERNMENTS How is an individual to deal with or even understand all these entities?

Posted by: hokecro | March 4, 2011 6:33 AM

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