The Trump Administration Must Tame the Federal Bureaucracy

In business, whether oil or wheat, Coke or Pepsi, sportswear or auto parts, all firms are known for a relative handful of things. In contrast, the federal government has so many “products” that there’s not a soul in the country who has a grasp on all of them.

Too Much to Keep Track Of

There are 15 Cabinet departments. One of them, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services HHS, has 11 “operating divisions.” Doesn’t sound too overwhelming, does it? Eleven is manageable, right?

Let’s pick one of these divisions that most of us value: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Within the CDC are the following: Eleven national “Centers” (for example, the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases), “Offices” for Infectious Diseases, Noncommunicable Diseases, Injury and Environmental Health, Public Health Preparedness and Response, and Public Health Scientific Services, and one for State, Tribal, Local and Territorial Support. This last is distinct from the HHS Indian Health Service, which itself has seven offices aside from the office of the director.

Then, of course, there is another prestigious and valuable division of HHS, the National Institutes of Health, composed of 27 distinct institutes and centers that perform research on all manner of diseases, health conditions, and potential treatments.

HHS has a proposed 2017 budget of $1.145 trillion. Were the Department a country, it would be one of the largest, in terms of net worth, in the world.

There is also the maddening fact that there are multiple federal agencies, bureaus, etc. doing exactly the same thing. In a series of reports beginning in 2011, the General Accountability Office has found hundreds of “areas where federal programs or activities are fragmented, overlapping, or duplicative.” While Congress and the Executive Branch have taken productive action in many of the departments reviewed by the GAO, much more remains to be done.

Yet the GAO analyses, important as they are, do not go far enough.

Why does the U.S. Department of Agriculture have a “Rural Housing Service” distinct from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development?

Why is there a Bureau of Economic Analysis in the Department of Commerce, a Division of Research and Statistics within the Federal Reserve System, and an Office of Economic Policy in the Treasury Department? All likely do fine research and analysis, but do they coordinate or integrate their work with one another?

Since all 50 states have departments of education, what’s the point of a U.S. Department of Education? Are states that incompetent or uncaring about their children that they need some unique, otherwise unavailable wisdom that only Washington can provide? Are they so inept that the state education secretaries cannot develop whatever coordination they might need outside the finger-wagging authority of the federal government?

When Loyalty Becomes Territoriality

My purpose is not to disparage the serious work being done in the complex of “corporations” consolidated under the banner of Uncle Sam. Rather, it is to point to an undeniable reality: organizations of this size and expense cannot possibly be monitored and held accountable by either Congress or the public.

The great majority of those working in the federal bureaucracy are diligent and serious professionals. Like any firm, private or public, for-profit or not-for-profit, government has its share of slackers and paycheck-cashers who take advantage of the dedicated efforts of their colleagues.

However, the vast scale of the federal government prohibits public understanding. Of course, not everyone needs to understand what the National Institute of Standards and Technology or the Small Business Administration’s Emerging Leaders Initiative do.

At the same time, federal programs of any size take on lives of their own. Self-preservation becomes their highest priority. Their common cry becomes, “We’ve been in existence for more than seven decades — how can you possibly think of streamlining us or consolidating our work with another office?!” Loyalty becomes territoriality. Employment becomes entitlement. Pride of authorship becomes defense of territory.

Still, this should not deter a focused, dedicated Chief Executive from moving ahead with his priorities. Ronald Reagan did this. He wanted to defeat Soviet communism, let the engine of the American economy run at top speed, restore America’s military and constrain and, where possible, shrink the size and expense of the federal government. He mostly succeeded in the first three of these and, as to the last two, at least convinced a majority of Americans that Uncle Sam needed a diet.

Divisive Leadership: Not Popular, But Necessary

We’re more divided now than we were in 1981, and even more in need of decisive leadership. Such leadership must be based as much on persuasion as on vision, clear and consistent explanation as well as prudent action.

Persuading and inspiring are more difficult when there are so many competing needs and wants from so many quarters. I once worked for a senior political leader who in his daily speeches hither and yon would talk about the importance of a given audience’s need and interests and assure them he was “passionate” about their issues. Their work, he would say regularly, was a priority for him.

I think he meant what he said when he said it. But if everything is a priority, nothing is. And in the United States today, so many people want so many different things. Now, and without cost, and without government’s intrusions.

These are among the challenges facing our new Chief Executive, a man whose professional life has been composed of potent, even dynamic business leadership. As he contemplates how to foster long-term, non-inflationary growth, thinking about how to streamline, improve, reduce the spending of and bring greater coherence to the federal government must be part of his overall plan. (For more from the author of “The Trump Administration Must Tame the Federal Bureaucracy” please click HERE)

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