The management view on Trump’s budget.
Most of the news about Trump’s proposed budget focuses on the numbers part — the steep cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency and departments like Agriculture, Labor and State; the $54 billion increase in defense spending; the elimination of nearly 20 independent agencies.
But tucked inside the 53-page document from the Office of Management and Budget is a brief two-page description of how the Trump administration intends to manage the federal bureaucracy, a nod to the agency’s mandate of overseeing agency performance and things like human capital, procurement and information technology.
The section, titled “Making Government Work Again,” begins by noting President Trump’s memorandum from January that imposed a hiring freeze for the nonmilitary federal workforce and called for a long-term plan to reduce its size, as well as his executive order from Monday aimed at reorganizing the executive branch. In that order, he instructs agencies to submit plans within six months to reorganize themselves, invite the public to make comments and deliver a reorganization plan to his desk six months after that.
Yet the “blueprint” also listed four statements the White House aims to “be able to say” its federal agencies achieved by 2020: more effective management, more resources devoted to objectives rather than unproductive compliance, more support for program outcomes and more accountability.
Responses from academics and other experts on government management were varied. Some applauded including the topic in the initial budget proposal. Others were skeptical about its commitment to investing in management reforms as it simultaneously makes stark cuts to many parts of the government.
Max Stier, president and CEO of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, said he sees “this as a positive, that a new president is sticking this stake in the ground on management issues from the getgo.” He said that “yes, there’s not a whole ton of detail here, but we’re seven weeks into the administration.”
He pointed out that President Barack Obama’s first budget proposal also spent less than two pages discussing how he intended to go about “making government more effective.” It called out similar goals — to “put performance first,” “streamline government procurement,” cut redundancy and increase the use of technology. (Obama devoted much more space to the issue, meanwhile, in his final budget.)
Others were more skeptical. Paul Light, professor of public service at New York University, said he was “underwhelmed.” He noted that “every president since FDR has entered office promising to make government better. Sometimes they do it with bells and whistles like Jimmy Carter, and sometimes they use blueribbon commissions like Reagan. The real question is what’s behind the promise.”
Noting the investments it takes to improve things like performance data and management, Light said, “You’ve got to spend money to save money.” He said there’s a “dissonance” between the budget’s management section and the deep cuts it calls for, saying, “I haven’t heard anything from this administration that would make me believe they are serious about sustained investments in better performance.”
Representatives for the Office of Management and Budget did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The document first says it plans to “take an evidence-based approach to improving programs and services — using real, hard data to identify poorly performing organizations and programs.” While that may sound like common sense, Stier says it’s an area where the government has plenty of room to improve. “This is actually something Obama started focusing on, but it’s by no means done,” he said.
Light, meanwhile, said the government’s extensive performance data is already measured. “I was particularly taken by the three or four words about using ‘real, hard data.’ As opposed to what? The federal agencies are drowning in the performance measurement systems that we already have.”
Another priority, Stier said — shifting resources more toward execution — also moved in the right direction. “Government has devolved into a lot of process and that becomes extremely frustrating for the consumer,” he said.
However, the administration will face a challenge in getting started because of the lack, in many departments, of deputy secretaries — the people best prepared to manage these reforms, Stier said. The people leading the effort “have to have enough seniority to help this happen,” he said. “But they’re not there yet. That presents a real issue.”
The goals listed in the proposed budget also include more of a push to hold agencies accountable for performance. But even with a call for “critical performance metrics” on which agencies can show “demonstrable improvement,” demands for accountability can be hard to manage, said Robert Behn, a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School who studies performance in government. “The word ‘accountability’ has a lot of baggage associated with it,” he says. “My wise guy comment is it means if you do something right, nothing happens. If you do something wrong, all hell breaks loose.”
Whether the Trump administration is successful on these management-driven reforms will also have much to do with whether Congress gets behind them, experts say.
Behn says they rarely care about such efforts — “it’s the management types who do” — and Stier notes that Congress is essential for accomplishing real change.
Laying out goals for management reform is “the equivalent of one hand clapping,” he said. “You need both hands. Congress has to be engaged in this.”
President Trump’s recently released budget has a two-page description of how the administration intends to manage the federal bureaucracy, called “Making Government Work Again.”