TBT: The Great Reorganization

Governor Frank Lowden. Photo from the Illinois Blue Books Collection, 
Illinois Digital Archives –  A service of the Illinois State Library and
Illinois Secretary of State.
In state government in Illinois there are about two dozen agencies referred to as “Code Departments.” These include major agencies like the Department on Aging and the Department of Central Management Services. The term “code department” refers to departments of state government authorized by the Civil Administrative Code. The Civil Administrative Code was legislation enacted in Illinois 100 years ago which not only revolutionized the way state government conducted its affairs, but also launched its major proponent on a road toward the White House.

Frank Lowden was sworn in as governor in January 1917 facing the prospect of a state financial crisis. The former congressman came into office promising to enact a sorely needed restructuring of state government. Lowden planned to merge or eliminate dozens of state agencies and also to consolidate the process of budget-making into one agency. But it wasn’t going to be easy.

Lowden was taking on a task that had frustrated governors of both parties since the turn of the century. The need for a reorganization was not in dispute; the “how” was going to be the problem. Governor Charles Deneen took a step toward this reorganization in 1912 when he consolidated several human services agencies into a State Board of Administration. Lowden’s immediate predecessor, Edward Dunne, had proposed legislation to streamline state government, but it had gotten nowhere.

Though Governor Dunne’s proposal was not successful, one very important step was taken during his administration. The legislature established its Efficiency and Economy Committee to, “investigate all departments of State government which have been created by the General Assembly, such investigations to be made with a view of securing a more perfect system of accounting, combining and centralizing the duties of the various departments, abolishing such as are useless and securing for the State of Illinois such reorganization as will promote greater efficiency and greater economy in her various branches of government.”

The committee, which included four members of each chamber of the legislature and under the directorship of Dr. John A. Fairlie of the University of Illinois, produced a report which called for the merging of many state agencies into just ten departments. This report would help show the way toward the great reorganization that Deneen’s successor would undertake.

Now into the second decade of the 20th century, with social and economic change seeming to proceed faster than ever, Lowden argued that the new era required a modernized structure for state government. Throughout the preceding century, a new state agency, board, commission or office had been created seemingly every time there was a new problem to address. Instead of larger departments dealing with multiple topics, many small agencies had been created with very specific purposes. This was done in part out of a fear that a more streamlined system would allow a governor to accumulate too much power, in other cases it had more to do with prestige or patronage. Whatever the purpose, by 1917 it had created a confusing tangle of responsibility that governor after governor had been unable to control.

From the day he took office, Lowden made the reorganization his first order of business. “Administrative agencies have been multiplied in bewildering confusion. They have been created without reference to their ability, economically and effectively to administer the laws,” he said in his inaugural address. “No systematic organization exists and no adequate control can be exercised.”
He targeted for elimination nearly 125 different overlapping, obsolete, duplicative or poorly-defined agencies. He pointed out that in key areas such as agriculture, education and health, there was such a jumble of overlapping responsibilities that the existing agencies weren’t even able to coordinate among themselves when tackling a common problem or task. In other cases, the governor could appoint members of the various agencies, but because they were independent he could exercise no further control over these state agencies, their actions or their policies. Citizens looking for help from a state agency often could not even find out where to go: some were headquartered in Springfield, others in Chicago and still others were based in other locations throughout the state.

In order to help get his proposal through the legislature, Lowden took the recommendations of the committee from the Dunne administration and made a very important alteration. Where the Efficiency and Economy Committee had recommended a wholesale reorganization, Lowden avoided questions of Constitutionality; as well a political minefield; by limiting his reform only to those agencies under the direct control of the governor, and left alone those which were under other statewide officials. He also made another strategic change: the previous recommendations had been submitted to the 49th General Assembly as separate bills for each agency. Lowden would present the 50th General Assembly with one large re-organization bill.

When Governor Lowden presented his plan to the legislature in the early days of his term, it called for nine specific departments dealing with agriculture, education, finance, labor, mines and minerals, public health, public welfare, public works and trade and commerce. Each department would have a director appointed by the governor, and the director would then pick the heads of the internal divisions of the department. The department heads would answer to the director and the director would answer to the governor. The department head’s term would begin the day the governor took office, meaning the governor could begin exercising his authority over the agency on day one.

An additional innovation called for each agency to follow the same budgeting and accounting process so that a standardized state budget would be submitted to the legislature. To help Illinoisans who were seeking aid from the agencies, the Civil Administrative Code required them to have a central office in Springfield, while allowing branch offices elsewhere in the state. The code would also require every state agency to make its purchases through a centralized purchasing agency which was part of the Department of Public Works and Buildings, thus standardizing the process and saving taxpayers money through the benefits of buying in bulk.

Astonishingly, Lowden rapidly found success where his predecessors had only found frustration. As noted above: the need had always been there and had always been acknowledged. Now Lowden had found the way to do it. And he did it in just a few weeks. By March 1, both houses had passed the proposed Civil Administrative Code with a nearly unanimous vote.

The Lowden reforms had the practical effect of allowing a governor to finally get a handle on the state bureaucracy. The new streamlined governmental model also faced an immediate test as it became official just as Illinois and nation began the massive task of mobilizing for America’s entry into World War I.

It would turn out that Illinois was not unique among the then-48 states of the union in having a disorganized and inefficient structure of government. Illinois’ new governing structure was copied in more than a dozen states around the nation. Even the U.S. Congress adopted the budgeting method and established its own Bureau of the Budget. Lowden’s reforms proved so popular around the nation that as he neared the end of his term in 1920, he became a leading contender for the Presidency, only to fall short at that summer’s convention. Keeping a pledge he had made from the first day of his governorship, Lowden served only that single term and retired from government in 1921.

Over the next 100 years, as the state grew and evolved, the names of agencies would change, as would some of their responsibilities. New agencies would be created, like the Illinois Department of Transportation in 1972, while existing ones would merge together, as with the merger which led to the Department of Natural Resources in the 1990s. But the basic structure of state government, as enacted by the Civil Administrative Code remains in place 100 years after the great reorganization.