Agencies Getting ‘Thicker’ from Top Down, Says Report

Federal agencies are getting “thicker” starting from the top, threatening their ability to respond quickly to challenges, says a report from the good government group the Volcker Alliance.

Researcher Paul C. Light wrote that in studying agency organizations since 1960, “the federal hierarchy grew with few interruptions …The thickening occurred in every department, regardless of mission or budget.”

In that time the number of layers–mostly of political appointees, some requiring Senate confirmation–rose from 17 to 71 while the number of officials in those layers rose from 451 to 3,265, he wrote. That resulted in what the report called “tongue-twisting titles” including associate principal deputy assistant secretary, associate assistant deputy secretary, and principal deputy associate attorney general.

“Past patterns suggest that these relatively new titles will spread to other departments as lower-level officers move up to match titles with their peers,” he added.

Although such positions are only a small percentage of the overall federal workforce, they create barriers for policy and budgetary decisions to flow up and down an organization, he said. For example, “When the informal layers composed of gatekeepers such as chiefs of staff are factored into the chain of command, veterans’ hospital nurses, air traffic controllers, and park rangers report upward through nineteen layers, including nine in Washington.”

Any attempt to reduce layers must be targeted, he added, as with the Clinton administration’s “government reinvention” approach. However, those reductions were “short-lived” and “departments generally recover the layers and leaders they lose through radical reorganizations,” he wrote.