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G.A.O. Cites Longstanding Flaws in Management of E.D.

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WASHINGTON--The Education Department has had serious flaws in its management structure ever since its inception, the General Accounting Office has charged in an in-depth report.

The agency should adopt a strategic plan "that demonstrates how its management infrastructure will be developed to support its mission and such Secretarial policy priorities as the national education goals,'' the G.A.O. report urges.

"Without a Secretarial-level process for setting clear goals and priorities and dealing with issues requiring long-term focus, [the department's] ability to implement solutions to problems and engage in effective Department-wide planning and management is impeded,'' the report says.

While the G.A.O. and other federal watchdogs, such as the Office of Management and Budget, the House Governmental Affairs Committee, and the department's own Office of the Inspector General, have taken the department to task in recent years over managerial shortcomings, the report issued late last month is the first to take a comprehensive historical look at the department's work culture and management system.

The report, "Department of Education: Long-Standing Management Problems Hamper Reforms,'' is part of a series of G.A.O. reviews of federal departments and agencies.

The two-year study draws on 151 interviews with current and former officials, agency documents, reviews of departmental studies and task-force reports, and reports from outside the department.

Endemic Problems

Responding to the study, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said, "It is generally an accurate assessment of the management problems that I inherited and plan to address.''

The report asserts that poor management and a negative self-image among its employees has been endemic within the department ever since it was created in 1979, when the agency's culture was dominated by a "focus on short-term solutions, highly centralized decisionmaking, and limited communication with and use of career employees by senior managers in management problem-solving.''

The report notes that the Reagan Administration sought to dismantle the department in the early 1980's, and that full-time staff declined by 33 percent between 1981 and 1991 while the agency was given responsibility for 70 new programs.

In addition, the report contends, some "Secretaries focused on external policy agendas, devoting little attention to departmental management.''

Attempts to improve management and image during the 1980's fizzled, the report says.

For example, it explains, "several proactive assistant secretaries tried to implement a strategic-planning process in 1989 but gave up when [Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos] declined to participate.''

Even if the department establishes a management vision, it needs the staff to carry out the plan, the report says. However, it indicates, large percentages of department employees are near retirement age and the department has had difficulty keeping young, specialized talent.

The report praises Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander for taking the first steps toward improving the department's management. Soon after taking office in 1991, Mr. Alexander introduced "America 2000,'' his vision for reforming America's schools, and brought in respected managers in top positions, the report notes.

Improvements Seen at Risk

Mr. Alexander and his staff also began looking to employees for answers to management problems and began an effort to expand Total Quality Management throughout the department.

Such steps are "new and not an established part of the organizational structure,'' the report warns. "Thus, with the change in administration the momentum could be lost.''

In his response, Mr. Riley said he is continuing Mr. Alexander's T.Q.M. initiative and has a team working on a strategic plan for the agency.

"In addition,'' he said, "the President's initiative to reinvent government will provide us with a further opportunity to identify and correct many long-standing management weaknesses.''

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