Should government go on a diet?

"The Best Places to Work in the Federal Government" survey results

The federal bureaucracy continues to grow each year with few efforts to stop the costly expansion, according to a new report released last month.

The study, "Fact Sheet on the Continued Thickening of Government," by Paul Light, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, finds that there are more layers at the top of government and more officials at each layer than ever before.

Thickening the federal bureaucracy complicates communication within agencies and makes it difficult — if not impossible — for vital information to pass from the top of the hierarchy to the bottom and vice versa, Light said.

"Information must pass through layer upon layer before it reaches the top of the hierarchy," Light said. Given the system's complexity, accountability in government is nearly impossible to manage. "Information is often delivered by word of mouth through a process that has come to resemble the childhood game of telephone," he said.

The report cites a number of factors that drive the steady growth of federal bureaucracy:

An expanding federal agenda.

The use of promotions in lieu of pay increases.

The effort to control the federal bureaucracy through denser networks of political appointees.

The creation of new titles, such as chief information officer and inspector general, by Congress.

Light said some titles created since 1960, such as assistant secretaries, CIOs, chief financial officers and a host of others, help the federal government adapt to changing needs and operate more effectively. But most positions do not.

If the layers of government continue to increase, so too will "the number of stories about missed information, the number of stories about senior officials who don't know what's going on at the bottom of their agencies and the number of stories about difficulties recruiting young people to the federal government because they can't see the opportunity for advancement in these dense hierarchies," Light said.

Some argue, however, that there is a difference between a title and a layer of government. The number of senior executive titleholders is less indicative of performance than the organizational structure of an agency's decision-making process.

"You really need to look at the function of the individuals and the decision-making progress of the organization," said Max Stier, chief executive officer and president of the Partnership for Public Service. "You could create a title that recognizes a person's performance but doesn't increase the work that has to be done to make a decision."

Surveys that assess how federal employees feel about their work environment better demonstrate the problems in organizational structure, Stier said. The partnership's Best Places to Work in the Federal Government survey uses data from the Office of Personnel Management and 100,000 federal workers to determine employee satisfaction.

The Interior and Commerce departments are examples of agencies with dense hierarchies that don't necessarily correlate to a dissatisfied workforce. Both agencies have at least 22 layers of executive titles and, according to the survey, boast a top 10 ranking in the categories of most satisfied frontline employees and executive employees.

"That kind of objective data is very helpful in understanding how employees perceive their work environment [and], therefore, how likely they are to get work done," Stier said. "It's a data-driven way of assessing whether government is getting better or worse that will give a much more nuanced and detailed sense of how employees are dealing within their environment."

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The government's expanding waistline

Growth of senior executives in the past five years:

The Justice Department has 25 new positions, a 13 percent increase.

The State Department has 18 new positions, a 14 percent increase.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has 22 new positions, a 45 percent increase.

The Agriculture Department has 58 new positions, a 24 percent increase.

The Education Department has 22 new positions, a 20 percent increase.

The Transportation Department has 27 new positions, a 16 percent increase.

The Labor Department has 10 new positions, a 9 percent increase.

Source: "Fact Sheet on the Continued Thickening of Government" by Paul Light

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