Performance Specialists Like Trump’s Management Agenda

Budget Director Mick Mulvaney speaks about the Trump Administration's budget proposal March 16. Budget Director Mick Mulvaney speaks about the Trump Administration's budget proposal March 16. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

A surprising amount of text in President Trump’s fiscal 2018 “skinny budget” released last Thursday was devoted to reforming agency management.

Among the proposals were calls to reorganize government to boost efficiency, to rely on data to judge program performance, and to free managers from overly prescriptive guidance to take advantage of private-sector practices.

“I’m glad that there is a section on management,” Max Stier, president and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, told Government Executive. “What’s in there offers a commitment to a presidential management agenda early in his tenure, with some keen insights,” he said. He cited the emphasis on “the importance of unleashing federal managers, who are subject to an ungovernable set of constraints.” Federal workers themselves are subject to too much red tape, he added.

Trump’s document, “America First: A Budget Blueprint for Making Government Great Again,” says the administration will focus on “data and evidence, and finally, the critical importance of the back-office functions—talent, acquisition and information technology,” Stier noted. “The focus on data is encouraging to me as an approach to making government work more effectively.”

A lot of efficiency reforms, in Stier’s view, can be done without Congress enacting new statutes.

Congress could help by updating the Paperwork Reduction Act, “which, in egregious ways, limits the way agencies collect voluntary customer experience information,” he said. Under the law, agencies have to go through the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs for approval to collect data—something that can take months.

Robert Shea, a veteran of OMB during the George W. Bush administration and now a principal at Grant Thornton LLP, called the Trump document “a really good outline of important management priorities. If you fill in the detail on that, especially when combined with the executive order on reorganization, you could have a transformative management agenda,” he said.

Trump’s evidence-based approach to improving programs “builds on the evidence agenda of the immediate past administrations,” Shea said. “My chief concern is that if evaluations are used simply to justify program cuts or eliminations rather than also for refinement and improvement, their candor and frequency may be diminished. I fear the weaponization of evidence.”

Shelley Metzenbaum, OMB’s associate director for performance and personnel management during the Obama administration, was also upbeat about the preliminary plans. “It’s great to get rid of excess guidance and checklists that aren't helpful. These tend to send a message to agencies to comply, rather than figure out how to improve,” she said. “It's great to let managers manage and support them in that, while expecting them to step up to the plate, using data to figure out how to improve performance on multiple dimensions including managing risks and costs, and to communicate that performance data frequently in understandable ways to the public.”

Teresa Gerton, president and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration, said, “We have opportunities to modernize how we do government performance and get smarter about data.”

“My hope is that this pushes us to be more intentional about interagency data sharing. Many government programs are only partly implemented by one agency, but they require many agencies to deliver a comprehensive service,” she said. “We aren’t very good about sharing data among agencies, which use different systems and elements that don’t crosswalk easily,” which makes measuring government outcomes difficult.

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