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Reorganizing government in the information age

Jun. 12, 2011 - 03:13PM   |  
By ALAN P. BALUTIS   |   Comments

Last month, Jeff Zients of the Office of Management and Budget told a Senate subcommittee that the plan to reorganize trade, exports and competitiveness agencies and activities was on schedule to be sent to the White House on June 9.

"We've held 250 meetings with current and former agency leadership, front-line employees, members of Congress and their staff, the business community and developed a website for agencies to submit their ideas," he said.

President Obama called for a reorganization of trade agencies in his State of the Union address, noting that we live and do business in the information age, but the last major reorganization happened in the middle of the last century the age of black-and-white television.

Reorganization remains a popular prescription for many of the ills of government. But we know little about what types of reorganizations promote efficiency, whether proposed reforms will do what their sponsors say they will, or whether major adjustments in structure or processes will make an agency a better place in which to work, a more effective institution, or a more responsive organ of government. In the summer issue of The Public Manager (which will be posted online June 15 at www.thepublicmanager.org), a dozen-plus members of the National Academy of Public Administration, including myself, offer how-to advice on organizational change. They suggest thinking outside the box defined by traditional organizational charts and considering new managerial options.

The contributors agree that reorganization is not some magical cure-all for a variety of political and bureaucratic ills. They also agree that economy as a grounds for major reorganization is a will-o'-the-wisp.

To increase the chance of success, a number of academy fellows highlight lessons learned both from their years in senior public-sector positions as well as insights gained from past reorganizing:

Reorganizations need leaders at the top who work with those they lead to create a new vision, new behaviors, a new culture. A new department or agency also will need a referee to decide turf fights and oversee creation of goals and their prompt implementation.

Congress will need to change its structure to reflect that of any new department. Note that all 86 congressional committees and subcommittees presiding before the creation of the Department of Homeland Security are still in effect today, exercising oversight, enacting authorizations and voting on appropriations.

Include the reorganized employees in the implementation so that energy is focused on creating a new future, not holding onto the past. In particular, engage and empower career executives and give the union a seat at the table.

Get the enabling legislation right. Not too much detail, not too little just right.

Avoid the thirst for instant gratification: Plan for the agency's realignment and develop a comprehensive change management strategy.

Unfreeze the status quo. Major reorganizations offer a unique opportunity to fundamentally change the way the government does business. Take the opportunity to re-engineer and transform.

Be prepared to weather the storm. Those who lead the reorganization must be prepared for two inevitabilities: Something will go wrong, and when it does, the second-guessing will begin.

Pay attention to the "soft" stuff. The redrawn boxes and wiring diagrams are nice. But it's the intangibles that can and will make the difference: leadership, culture, values, employee engagement and strategic communications.

This is not an exhaustive list of lessons learned. There are other maxims, such as "communicate, communicate, communicate" and "engage stakeholders," that are confirmed by our experts' experiences.

Finally, aren't there alternatives to disruptively moving boxes on our traditional organizational charts? Yes, say some of the experts, who cite virtual reorganization or collaborative mechanisms to knit together related programs and efforts that cut across federal agencies.

Reorganization is hard work. It would be somewhat ironic if the response to current woes is a reorganizational approach still drawn from the age of black-and-white TV.

Alan P. Balutis is senior director and distinguished fellow at Cisco Systems Inc.

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