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President Obama has ordered a review of government agencies with a focus on those that deal with trade and exports. The president wants to double U.S. exports over the next four year and says the nation, in his words, can't win the future with a government built for the past. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.
BRIAN NAYLOR: The reorganization effort is being led by a Washington businessman in his first government job - Jeffrey Zients of the Office of Management and Budget. Zients says he's taking an approach that's common in the private sector.
Mr. JEFFREY ZIENTS (Office of Management and Budget): In effect, what we're doing is the same thing that the best businesses do all the time. We're stepping back and doing the analysis and determining how we, the U.S. government, can operate more efficiently and serve the public better
NAYLOR: By all accounts, the government doesn't operate very efficiently when it comes to promoting exports, which the Obama administration says is key to creating more jobs in the U.S. There are at least a dozen agencies that deal with trade and exports, ranging from the Commerce Department to the U.S. Trade Representative's Office to the U.S. Export-Import Bank.
Jitinder Kohli has studied the issue for the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank closely associated with the Obama administration. Kohli says the federal government is fragmented in the way it promotes trade and economic competitiveness.
Mr. JITINDER KOHLI (Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress): You've got a very large number of agencies playing in the same kind of space, and if you ask yourself the very obvious question who's the lead agency for promoting competitiveness or the future prosperity of the nation, the answer is we're not exactly sure.
NAYLOR: Kohli says the solution might be a kind of super agency, a business, trade and technology department.
Mr. KOHLI: And that department might bring together the work that the U.S. Trade Representative does with the Department of Commerce and also other trade related work that's done around government, and also potentially the work of the Small Business Administration.
NAYLOR: Kohli says it's an approach tried with some success in Great Britain, which he knows firsthand, having worked on the project there. But reorganizing the U.S. bureaucracy is fraught with pitfalls.
Paul Posner, the director of the public administration program at George Mason University, likens it to moving boxes around. He points to the Department of Homeland Security, formed during the Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks. It consolidated some 22 different agencies into one bureaucracy, including a newly formed Transportation Security Administration.
Professor PAUL POSNER (George Mason University): We created the Department of Homeland Security by moving aviation security from the Department of Transportation into the Department of Homeland Security. So we solved one problem. But on the other hand, the FAA no longer had comprehensive control of airports anymore. So with every move, we move a box, we solve one problem and create another one.
NAYLOR: Another problem with restructuring the bureaucracy is Congress. Lawmakers have historically been unwilling to give up any of their turf. With the Department of Homeland Security, that has meant many, many overseers, says Robert Tobias of American University.
Professor ROBERT TOBIAS (American University): What do they have, 88 committees that DHS reports to? Now, how can any one department effectively report to 88 congressional committees, often when they're giving conflicting direction and advice?
Jeffrey Zients says he's aware of these pitfalls. The administration has been seeking input from lawmakers and from those he says are on the front lines, the government employees who will ultimately implement any changes. There's a website up seeking their suggestions.
Mr. ZIENTS: I couldn't agree more that we want to make sure that we are not moving boxes for the sake of moving boxes. Reorganizations have some costs associated with them, and clearly whatever we recommend will have benefits that far outweigh the costs.
NAYLOR: Zients' report to the president is due in June.
Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.