Or, consider Jimmy Carter’s creation of the Department of Energy in 1977, another troubled reorganization in which widely different government functions (developing advanced weaponry, regulating interstate electricity sales) were placed in a single entity with conflicting and ever-changing missions (promoting nuclear energy, cleaning up nuclear waste sites, sharing scientific knowledge, keeping national security secrets, and so on).
So yes, it’s true that some big government reorganizations have gone poorly. But it’s also true that others have gone quite well. Lyndon Johnson’s establishment of the Department of Transportation in 1966, for example, has long been considered successful at bringing numerous far-flung agencies, from the Federal Aviation Administration to the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation, under one roof and providing some semblance of a coordinated national transportation policy. The Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act, signed by Ronald Reagan in 1986, is widely lauded for having reduced inter-service rivalries in the Pentagon. Another success is Bill Clinton’s creation of the Corporation for National and Community Service in the early 1990s. (I played a small role in that work as a consultant and adviser to the senior leaders of the agency.) By merging the nascent AmeriCorps national service program with existing service programs like VISTA, the CNCS has led to a true national service movement, one in which hundreds of thousands of individuals have participated in everything from tutoring at-risk students to helping communities rebuild from natural disasters.
Government reorganizations can work, then, if they’re well thought through, focused around clear missions, and aimed at real national needs. I believe that one of our biggest needs is to develop more and greater talent.
By “talent” I don’t mean just innate abilities (Americans have that in spades, though they could use a lot more). Talent is a complex amalgam of capabilities that lead to success in personal lives and careers. It consists of education, provided in K-12 schools and universities; skills and training, learned in community colleges and on the job; and values, such as determination, individual initiative, ingenuity, and service to others, that are rooted in our culture. That synergy goes beyond the individual, impacting society as well. Talent fuels economic growth and puts Americans to work. With the economy so radically changed over the past decade, we need a new wave of innovation to grow new jobs in new sectors. We need talented innovators, from both here and abroad, to help create that wave, and we need a 21st-century education system to train citizens to hold those jobs.
Though government is not always the solution to our nation’s biggest challenges, it is clearly one tool in the toolbox. The federal government, in particular, can have a unique impact on national priorities when it operates effectively, efficiently, and with clear goals and outcomes. That’s because the federal government is well positioned to address the national talent needs of a mobile, interdependent society.