Here’s How I’d Like to Restructure the Federal Government

Over the last year or two, I’ve been working closely with the Brookings Institution in their efforts to reframe the federal-metropolitan relationship (which you probably know if you’ve spent any time whatsoever reading this blog). They believe that the federal government is “too top-down, siloed, and hard-to-use by increasingly creative, data-driven metro actors.” And so they promote things like metropolitan business plans and praise the creation of interagency taskforces (like TARIC: Taskforce for Advancing Regional Innovation Clusters) and funding programs (like the $130 million, seven agency E-RIC grant).

But in all my time with them, I’ve never heard them take that line of reasoning to its logical conclusion. That is, if it’s true that the federal government is too siloed, then no interagency working group is going to be able to overcome the fundamental turf wars and differing priorities that keep departments from truly collaborating.

It would require an actual restructuring of government. And here’s my plan to do that:

There are 15 departments in the federal government, so let’s start there. I think that I can get it down to four:

  • Department of the Economy gets Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, Labor and Treasury.
  • Department of Infrastructure gets Housing & Urban Development, Interior and Transportation.
  • Department of Social Services gets Education, Health & Human Services, Justice, and Veterans Affairs
  • Department of External Affairs gets State, Homeland Security and Defense.

Then you start with the hundreds of agencies and commissions. For example, all the spy agencies would go into External Affairs. Economy would get the research and science institutions like NASA, and Social Services would get the National Endowment for the Arts. EPA would join Infrastructure. You might also take some pieces out of existing departments and put them in the new format. NIH moves from HHS (under Social Services) to Economy (with the other research institutions) and the Army Corps of Engineers might go from External Affairs to Infrastructure.

There’s a lot of work to be done on the details (not to mention the names of the new four) and you can definitely argue about placement (i.e.-education belongs in Economy because it’s really workforce devleopment?). But if you do this, you’ve significantly increased the alignment and integration of the federal government. You’d have Labor, Commerce and Energy all working together to create green jobs, while Transportation and HUD make fully coordinated decisions about where we live and work and how we get there.

I actually think this is a political winner as well. My friends think it’s too wonky for the average person to care, but this isn’t just a Paperwork Reduction Act. I mean, on the deficit hawk side, think how much administrative efficiency (therefore dollars) you gain by combining all that overhead. And, on the progressive, aligned-investment side, you’re living the dream of taking an obsolete system and modernizing it for 21st century. It’s not like you’re cutting programs (just reorganizing them under a shared vision and singular leaderships), so there shouldn’t be any core constituencies fighting for their piece of the pie to remain.

Think about it, Brookings folks. It’s the Big Solution to all of the things we’ve been talking about. Set it to an animated Bruce Katz powerpoint, and people are going to get excited!

UPDATE: Guess what? Governor Gregoire just proposed the same thing for Washington!

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