President Trump’s new plan for a White House Office of American Innovation run by his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner is winning some plaudits from long-time observers of similar government efficiency campaigns. The danger, however, could appear in the form of large-scale layoffs and an unfruitful reliance on contractors, some say.
The plan for a “swat team” of former business executives to shake up the bureaucracy “will bring together the best ideas from government, the private sector and other thought leaders to ensure that America is ready to solve today's most intractable problems,” said the presidential memorandum released late on Monday.
Before arriving at any recommendations, the office “shall gather information, ideas and experiences from other parts of government, from the private sector, and from other thought leaders and experts outside of the federal government,” it said. Key roles would be played not only by Trump’s principal advisers and the Office of Management and Budget but also by the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy—a position Trump has yet to fill.
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The plan also comes after a slew of Trump executive orders promising management and regulatory reforms, and with a history of past administration efficiency efforts going back decades.
“A number of public administration experts have recommended management improvement responsibility be assigned at the highest level, closest to the president,” said Robert Shea, an OMB performance specialist during the George W. Bush administration now a principal with Grant Thornton LLP’s public sector services. “This is that. With the right governance in place, this new office has the potential to make lasting improvements to the way government works. But it’ll take persistence to address many of the longstanding challenges previous efforts have been unable to fix.”
University of Maryland public policy professor Don Kettl agreed. “It’s easy to call this one ‘dead on arrival,’ ” he told Government Executive. “But of all the areas in which improved private-sector insight could improve government performance, information technology and big data rank near the top. One could imagine genuine value here.”
Kettl observed that the project appears more of a “council” than an office, and wondered whether the phrase “scaling proven private-sector models to spur job creation and innovation” would mean enlarging or shrinking agencies.
Harvard University management professor Steve Kelman, who headed the White House Office of Federal Procurement Policy during the Clinton administration, wrote in a blog post that the initiative has “the potential to be a home run for the American people.” He cited Trump’s record as an innovator of public-private partnerships on a New York City ice rink project in the 1980s and credited Trump for pursuing management issues (which seldom get such media coverage, he noted).
Trump’s approach, in contrast to the Grace Commission, which achieved mixed results during the Reagan administration, “appears to be a more-collaborative and less-confrontational one,” Kelman wrote.
Mallory Barg Bulman, vice president of research and evaluation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, said efforts going back to the late 1940s have shown that “when you have that real leadership from the top, a commitment from the Executive Office of the President, real things can get done. Any critical issue will require more than one agency to address,” she added, “and OMB is well suited to make that type of change.”
The partnership has long argued that no one sector—be it government, business or nonprofits—“ is able to solve the type of problems we have, to get solutions and best value for the American public,” she said.
Bulman also agreed with the plan’s promise to exploit technology. “IT can be an enabler to government if they’re thinking about it in a strategic way,” she said, recommending that the Trump team acknowledge successes already in place from the Obama administration IT reform squads at 18F and the U.S. Digital Service. “We already have top talent from Silicon Valley, so let’s see what’s working before throwing out the baby with the bath water,” she said.
Teresa Gerton, a former Labor Department executive now president of the National Academy of Public Administration, said she was “pleased to see the specifics about technology and data,” in the memorandum. “If this office could come up with a solution to intergovernmental data sharing, that would go a long way toward supporting reorganization and efficiency and the data-driven policy approach they want to take," she said. “The government isn’t very good at sharing data,” she added, and many of the efficiencies this administration wants for its evidence-based approach “are in the interagency space,” she said. Housing and homelessness, for example, are handled by at least a dozen agencies, Gerton noted. “You have to be able to share data to measure the impact,” so the “big data people could come in” and help.
Union representatives are perhaps most wary of Trump’s intentions. “I am concerned that this new office will be little more than an attempt to replace government employees with private-sector contractors,” said National Treasury Employees Union national president Tony Reardon in a statement to Government Executive.
“In the past, similar initiatives have been stacked with business leaders who seem to start with the same premise —that contracting out government work will somehow make federal agencies operate more efficiently,” he said. “Genuine efforts to improve innovation and efficiency in government need the perspectives of frontline employees who have made a career out of public service, not just private business interests who stand to make money from government reorganization.”
Similar worries were expressed by Paul C. Light, professor of public service at New York University. “We’ve been here before,” he said, referring to the common conservative assumption that business people can school the government on efficiency. The Trump plan “is a little more positive” than Reagan-era efforts, “and is more responsive to making government focus on information technology,” he acknowledged.
But “he has put a hiring freeze on," Light said, despite “mission-critical vacancies” and “skill-set gaps” in the STEM fields and in the acquisition workforce. “You have agency acquisition staff that don’t know how to cut a contract for work in cyber-security, telecommunications or basic big data,” he said. “Are the innovation office people going to write the contracts for themselves? There are big vacancies, and the business people who come in will be shocked.”
When word first emerged of Trump’s plan for the office on Monday, a key IT contractor group welcomed it. "Fresh thinking can spark new solutions to old problems, an approach that is deeply ingrained in the tech industry," said Dean Garfield, president and CEO of the Information Technology Industry Council. “Already the White House is tapping talent from the private sector, and we look forward to working with them on this effort as it goes from upstart to governmentwide."