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The Never-Ending Campaign Against Bureaucratic Bloat

Pledging greater efficiency, lots of governors (and candidates for the job) want to reorganize their states’ administrative structures. Sometimes they pull it off, but usually the reforms don’t last.

Iowa state government reorganization bill
At 1,500 pages, the government reorganization bill Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds recently signed into law filled two large binders. The Republican governor said it would save the state $200 million over four years. Democrats called it a gubernatorial power grab.
(Katarina Sostaric/Iowa Public Radio)
Nobody outside the state much noticed, but a couple of weeks ago Iowa did something fairly dramatic. Prodded by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, it enacted a sweeping reorganization of state government, reducing the number of cabinet-level state agencies from 37 down to 16 and making them answerable to the Legislature and the governor’s office rather than quasi-independent, as many of them have been up until now.

Reynolds was ecstatic. For decades, she proclaimed, “Iowans have seen state government grow beyond its means.” Now she and the Legislature had moved to “declare an end to bloated bureaucracy.” The reform law, she announced, would eliminate 513 unfilled and unnecessary positions, do it without having to impose any layoffs, and save the state at least $200 million over a period of four years.

Democrats weren’t so sure about all this. They didn’t have the votes to stop it, but they generally denounced it as a gubernatorial power grab, one that would turn over management positions to Reynolds’ friend and allies, regardless of qualifications. They were especially upset by a provision in the law giving the state attorney general the authority to prosecute cases in any county without obtaining the approval of the county attorney. “This is Des Moines telling your county what to do,” one Democratic legislator complained to his local voters.

Without disparaging all the state agencies slated to lose some powers, one can easily point to a few that might be deemed superfluous, or at least subject to challenge as independent entities. Iowa currently has a Board of Barbering, a Boiler and Pressure Vessel Board, and a Board of Cosmetology Arts and Sciences. The cosmetology board has seven members, chosen for three-year terms, and at least one of them must be a hair removal specialist, a nail technician or an aesthetician. (I didn’t know what an aesthetician was, so I looked it up: It’s someone who does cosmetic skin treatments and waxing.)

This board meets for one day each quarter. It’s hard to find the compensation of individual members, but if I’m reading the state reports correctly, members of some boards can be paid more than $70,000 a year. This doesn’t make any of them fraudulent, but it suggests that it might make sense to subject some of them to legislative oversight and house them in larger cabinet offices, as will now be done.

These are important reforms, but they aren’t that unusual in American state government management. A fair number of governors campaign against administrative bloat and vow to streamline it. Just two years ago, Arkansas effected a similar housecleaning, reducing the number of its agencies from 42 to 15, for a projected saving of $15 million a year. “This transformation is not just any transformation,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson proudly proclaimed.

Like most states, Arkansas had a few government entities that seemed candidates for streamlining, such as the Boll Weevil Eradication Committee, the Catfish Promotion Board and the Earthquake Authority. Arkansas does have minor geological tremors, but the last one to cause noticeable damage occurred more than 20 years ago, and it didn’t do much more than rattle some dishes and jar some windowpanes. Consolidating a few of the 42 agencies seemed a rational brand of management reform.

The most interesting question is this: Just how much long-term change do these reorganizations actually create? My Governing colleague Don Kettl, who pays close attention to these things, counts himself a skeptic. “My sense,” he told me recently, “is that reorganizations rarely have much impact on the performance of state governments. ... The next governor can easily reverse changes, and more important, simply ignore changes and manage the government as they see fit.”

PERHAPS ILLUSTRATING DON’S POINTS, the Hutchinson reforms in Arkansas were aimed at eliminating some of the bloat that had crept into state government despite the massive reorganization enacted under Gov. Dale Bumpers in 1971. Bumpers melded 60 agencies into 13 departments. Before very long, bureaucratic bloat started to creep in again. Of course, you might argue that a reform that stays on the books for 50 years isn’t necessarily a failure. But it does point out that when it comes to management in state government, no streamlining, regardless of how ambitious it may be, is going to last indefinitely.

Why is that?

Well, the most common explanation is that commission bloat is a simple matter of influential industries seeking to limit the number of practitioners in the interest of keeping their prices and profits up. The economist Milton Friedman pointed this out in the early 1960s, and it continues to make sense. Cosmetologists possess a valuable skill, and incompetent ones can injure their clients, but even the worst nail specialist isn’t going to kill anybody. An open market should be able to sort out the failures. A board to control the profession and require licenses is, at least arguably, unnecessary. The same is true of a board of barbering and a board of chiropractic, both of which Iowa has. Arkansas has a state board of massage therapy and a board of acupuncture.

Then there are the interest groups that represent citizens in genuine need and whose support is something the governor needs (or wants) to cultivate. Iowa has a commission for the blind and a commission for deaf services, as well as others. Over time they become skillful lobbyists for additional funding and are often allowed to appoint their own members. One of the elements of the current Iowa reform would transfer appointment power for several of them to the governor and subject the nominees to Senate confirmation.

All of the pressures for independence run counter to the familiar argument that state government is simply bloated and too expensive and needs to be scaled back in the public interest. This has been a staple of gubernatorial campaigns from Jimmy Carter in Georgia in the 1960s to Arnold Schwarzenegger in California in the early 2000s. Sometimes they result in significant change, as Carter’s did in Georgia and Reynolds’ reorganization is doing this year in Iowa. Sometimes they go virtually nowhere, as was the case for Schwarzenegger.
Arnold Schwarzenegger at his swearing-in ceremony
Arnold Schwarzenegger at his gubernatorial swearing-in ceremony at the California State Capitol on Nov. 17, 2003. His state-government reorganization plan went virtually nowhere. (Shutterstock)
Governors who campaign against bureaucratic bloat tend to keep up those arguments when they seek higher office. Carter used the word “bloat” as a criticism of the federal government in virtually every speech when he ran for president successfully in 1976. Rick Perry of Texas based much of his 2016 presidential campaign on his vow to eliminate several federal agencies, then saw the whole effort collapse in a debate when he couldn’t remember them all.

THE CONFLICTING PRESSURES for agency independence and gubernatorial control play out most often in the field of human services, for which states have been unable to settle on an effective management structure no matter how hard they try. The result is a repeating sequence of consolidations and dispersals, each imposed with the best of intentions but producing little real improvement in service delivery.

And sometimes, at both the state and federal level, reform by consolidation is a handy response at a time of crisis when it’s not clear what else to do. The 9/11 attacks in 2001 led the administration of George W. Bush to consolidate 22 separate government agencies into a monolithic Department of Homeland Security on the promise that this would lead to a better-focused and more efficient bulwark against foreign terrorism. This doesn’t seem to have happened: A number of studies conducted in the ensuing years concluded that the massive and unwieldy new department is, if anything, less efficient than the diverse collection of agencies it replaced.

We are left with a complex array of cross-pressures that make it difficult to decide whether a state should err on the side of consolidating central power or on the side of giving interest groups the degree of independence they feel they have earned. I don’t have a foolproof answer. I know that if I were a governor I would want as much control over state management as I could possibly gather in. I would feel that this is the arrangement most likely to promote the well-being of the citizenry as a whole. This is obviously the way Kim Reynolds and Asa Hutchinson felt. My instinct is that they were right.

Reorganizations like the current ones are, on balance, a good idea. The leaders who promote them just ought to keep in mind a well-established reality: Within a few years, possibly a very few, a new set of political forces will start yanking them back in the other direction.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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