Easy on Paper
Another Illinois governor, another reorganization plan
April 9, 1992
As I note below, new Illinois governors often move agencies around the way they rearrange the furniture at the mansion, partly as a way to make the place feel theirs, partly to make themselves feel useful. It looks easy on paper, but such moves always cost more than they save, and create more than a little confusion among employees.
I here accuse Jim Edgar of seeking to save money in operating costs by consolidating agencies. That was misleading. The real goal was administrative coherence. When he took office he inherited a bureaucratic house in which the clothes dresser had ended up in the kitchen because there wasn't room for it in the bedroom and someone had put the sofa in the garage so they wouldn't have to worry about spilling stuff on the carpet during football telecasts.
The news that Gov. Jim "James" Edgar is not going to reorganize major state agencies after all hit Springfield hard. Painters and printers who took out loans in anticipation of a burst of business were said to be outraged; Gary LaPaille and the Democrats won't have to pay a nickel for yard signs or leaflets the next time Edgar runs for anything in Sangamon County.
New governors often move agencies around the way they rearrange the furniture at the mansion, as a way to make the place feel theirs. Edgar however was more interested in cutting down on the housekeeping expenses by getting rid of stuff that no one seemed to use very much.
Thus the talk about merging this agency with that one. It's a very Springfield sort of parlor game that everyone can play. I would merge the Illinois National Guard with the Illinois Commerce Commission, which is always being outgunned by the electric utilities. And I would combine the offices of the Commissioner of Banks and Trusts, the Department of Financial Institutions, the Department of Insurance, and the Commissioner of Savings and Residential Finance with the Department of Corrections, to cut out the middle men.
There are political as well as fiscal costs to be taken into account when merger-ing. Consolidating the State Board of Education with its Indiana counterpart would rid Illinois of the pestilence of the Professional Educator and thus have happy effects from a policy and a budget perspective, but you know the old saw: Those that can, do; those that can't teach; those that teach, vote.
This is why most state officials would rather stick with something that they know doesn't work than try something they're not sure will work. Edgar lowered the political risks of merger by picking on agencies smaller than he is, such as the Department of Energy and Natural Resources. One plan reportedly would have merged ENR with an enlarged Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.
ENR is something of a mongrel dog. Its makeup demonstrates why Jim Thompson earned a reputation as a politician rather than as an administrator. The agency was assembled to shepherd the state (via various conservation and coal technology initiatives) through an energy-scarce future that never arrived. Grafted onto this soon-to-be-irrelevant energy operation were existing programs from other agencies that had something to do with research regarding natural resources: the Illinois State Museum, whose mission is ultimately pedagogical; the water, geological, and natural history surveys (based in Champaign) whose orientation is industrial; and the old Institute for Environmental Quality, one of the state's three original environmental protection agencies, which was rule-oriented.
Environmental regulation and resource planning are fundamentally more complex tasks than issuing drivers' licenses, which is how Edgar got his degree in public administration. Merging ENR with IEPA would have done nothing to improve the internal coherence of the former. It would however have undone the state's unique tripartite system of environmental regulation. Basically IEPA is empowered to enforce the rules that are written by the Illinois Pollution Control Board; the job of the old IEQ (and thus later ENR) was to analyze the likely impacts of those rules in terms of cost-effectiveness, etc.
There are as many opportunities for delays and disputes in such a set-up as lawyers can think up, and everyone complains about its inefficiency. What some of the Edgar people apparently misunderstood is that it is the inefficiency of the system that makes it valuable to the citizens. Investing the power to make rules in one agency and the power to enforce them in another keeps each from abusing its power, as the founding fathers knew when they made Congress and the President separate branches.
The Edgar plans confirmed why agency reorganization seldom works. Such schemes usually are hatched early in the terms of new governors, when the people in charge still think they can influence state government. That naiveté is born of ignorance, since they haven't been around long enough to figure out how the agencies work. For example, ENR's value lies in fact-finding and analysis—things that are essential to policy formation but irrelevant to enforcement.
There are in fact rearrangements that would make those processes more coherent, if not less expensive. Thompson's error in founding the agency was to group its disparate parts according to the way they did their work rather than the work they did. Surgery to correct these lingering birth defects would result in a coherence of ends rather than means. For example:
● Leave the IEPA as it is, but merge the policy operation of ENR with the IPCB to give the latter a fact-finding and analysis capability that would reduce its vulnerability to the corporate
consultants and lawyers that appear before it in rules cases.
● Combine the Department of Conservation's natural areas programs never comfortable with the sports orientation of that agency with the Illinois State Museum and the existing Historical Preservation Agency into a new "Heritage Preservation Agency" or some such.
● Merge ENR's coal-technology programs and the three scientific surveys which are pro-industry with Mines and Minerals to create a new resources development agency.
None of these changes would save money, of course; their appeal is mainly aesthetic. Merging agencies is like creating artificial nation-states by arbitrarily drawing lines across maps without regard to ethnic, religious, and historical realities. An outfit like the Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities is like Yugoslavia with Xerox machines.
In fact, mergers almost always make things less efficient rather than more. It probably takes two years for a staff to learn how to function in a new environment. Delays and mistakes are unavoidable while people learn a new system; inefficiencies are inevitable during a phase-in when old systems overlap. Look how long it is taking the Edgar administration to learn how to run state government. ●
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