President Donald Trump’s habit of appointing people to run federal agencies who have a history of very public antipathy toward those same agencies has caused many good government advocates to throw up their hands in dismay. And White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon’s claim that the administration’s goal is a dismantling of the regulatory state has likewise created a lot of heartburn for people who believe that a strong, functional federal government is essential to the success of the country.
However, an executive order signed by the president yesterday is giving some hope to people who simultaneously believe that, yes, the federal government needs to be healthy and functional, but that it could also do with a strong dose of reform.
The order, billed as a “Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch,” gives the heads of every federal agency 180 days to submit to the White House Office of Management and Budget “a plan to reorganize the agency, if appropriate, in order to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability of that agency.”
Six months later, the OMB director is expected to deliver a plan to “reorganize governmental functions and eliminate unnecessary agencies...components of agencies, and agency programs” with an aim to “improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability of the executive branch.”
Part of the OMB director’s mandate is to seek out redundant functions in the executive branch, to identify functions better left to the states and to assess the costs and benefits of the services that the federal government delivers.
There are, of course, two ways to look at this. There is the Trum-skeptic view, which considers the move window dressing on an ideologically-driven plan to drastically reduce the size of the federal government and its influence on the daily life of the nation. To some Trump advisers, like Bannon, a reduction of the size of the government is essentially a good in and of itself.
The other, more optimistic view is that this represents a real chance to begin a serious discussion of genuine government reform. That’s how Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, is choosing to look at the Trump plan.
“It’s certainly too early for people to be throwing stones,” he said, by suggesting this is just cover for an effort to slash the size of the federal government. “This doesn’t presuppose any conclusions, at least on the face of the order,” he noted. He also pointed out that the order includes language directing the agency heads to consider the impact of cuts on necessary public services.
“That’s really important and something to be lauded -- it’s recognition that the people are at stake here,” he said.
Stier, whose organization is dedicated to finding ways to make government agencies work better, both in terms of effectiveness and efficiency, said that there is plenty of relatively obvious targets for a reform effort.
“We have over $100 billion spent on improper payments. There’s duplication in back office functions. And there’s a huge opportunity for thinking of the government as an integrated enterprise.”
However, he warned, government reform efforts have come and gone over the years, and there are some stumbling blocks the Trump administration would do well to avoid.
The first, he said, is failing to assure real buy-in from members of Congress -- something that caused real problems during the years following the reorganization of the nation’s law enforcement and national security services to create the of the Department of Homeland Security.
“Congress plays an incredibly important role,” he said. “No organizational changes are going to take effect without Congress signing on.”
The second is failing to understand that “as much as organization matters, people matter more and that includes the political leaders. This is a very hard task to take on without having his team in place in the agencies.”
The Trump administration will have a hard time getting really thorough, smart analyses of the various agencies it controls if it doesn’t have the people it needs in key positions at those agencies -- and Stier, whose organization is tracking the White House’s appointments to key executive branch positions, warns that the administration has already fallen behind previous administrations in naming people to key positions.
The administration may need to decide which is more important -- sticking to its 180-day timetable for the first phase of the project, or waiting until it has the personnel in place to do the job right.
“It’s not just about selecting these people,” Stier said. “It’s getting them up to speed and getting them to work together. And those three things all take time.”