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IBM Center for the Business of Government

By Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene

Abracadabra,” “hocus-pocus” and “presto-chango” are clichéd magic words designed to deliver a variety of wishes to boys and girls in books. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t, and sometimes they have perverse effects. The lesson, typically, is to be careful of what you wish for.

We’re reminded of the lilting yet ominous line from the song Somewhere Over the Rainbow: “And the dreams that you dare to dream, really do come true.”

Leaders in the states and the federal government seem to be frequently using their own magic word these days: Reorganization. There are a number of reasons why shifting agencies and their tasks around can seem appealing. At the state level, we’re told, some governors simply want to return to simpler days when they could fit the full cabinet around one big table. Of more importance, as Bob O’Neill, executive director at the ICMA told us a couple of years ago, “If consolidation creates the opportunity to work across traditional boundaries, it can improve effectiveness, speed and flexibility.”

In late January, according to the Washington Post, President Obama called for “the most aggressive reorganization of the federal government in at least half a century, asking Congress for the authority to merge agencies and departments if necessary.’ The President made his point with abundant clarity when he cited the fact that “The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in saltwater. I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked.”

At the state level, more than half the governors talked about redesigning or reorganizing state government as a priority in their 2011 State of the State addresses, according to the National Governors Association. “For better or for worse,” Oregon Governor John Kizhaber noted, “the Great Recession has leveled the House of Oregon to its foundations and given us the opportunity to build it for the 21st century.”  You can view the entire column by clicking here.