White House Denies that Trump Vacancies Impair Agency Reforms

Countering the notion that the large number of high-level agency vacancies is hindering President Trump’s efficiency reforms, the key White House management adviser on Sunday told a television audience a “good dialog” is taking place between agency career staff and budget officials as the June 30 deadline for high-level agency reorganization proposals nears.

The proposals are part of President Trump’s effort to increase efficiency and cut the federal workforce. The initial plans due at the end of June are to include a report on progress on near-term workforce reductions and a strategy “to maximize employee performance.” In September, after discussions with the Office of Management and Budget’s Resource Management Offices, agencies will submit their final reform plans and long-term strategies for workforce cuts as part of their fiscal 2019 budget proposals.

Linda Springer, a veteran federal manager serving as special adviser to OMB, said on the June 11 edition of WJLA’s “Government Matters” that a “not insignificant” announcement of “Phase One” of Trump agency reorganization plans is planned for this week.

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“The President’s Management Council met [last week], … and we devoted a portion of the time for agencies to share what they’re doing,” she said. Many of the activities are led by career employees, while secretaries, such as Defense Secretary James Mattis, “really set a tone,” she added. “It gives a little bit of the lie to the notion that not having the politicos in place means there’s not much activity or content or that [the reorganization] won’t be a robust thing.”

Agencies are also sharing ideas on how to better deliver on the mission, she said, with “Commerce talking with Interior, NASA talking with Energy, each in its own way. It’s not a top-down-driven exercise.”

Springer said she is very pleased that there are “lots of activities,” and that meetings with the major agencies are being set up for July so that OMB staff from both the management and budget sides can meet with agency specialists—sometimes during field trips to offices outside of Washington.

Though Trump has called for abolishing 19 agencies and other programs, Springer’s read of the meetings so far is that “very few relate to an out-and-out elimination.” The focus is on greater efficiency and performing services better: “Getting rid of things that are low-value activit[ies],” she said, many of which are requirements imposed on agencies that come from OMB and perhaps haven’t been reviewed in years.

Trump’s two drafts of his fiscal 2018 budget “are focused on giving taxpayer value, as well as areas that relate very directly to the federal workforce,” Springer said, mentioning the proposed cuts in retirement benefits, the 1.9 percent civilian pay raise, the 2.1 percent raise for the military and paid parental leave. “They are difficult decisions,” said the veteran of the George W. Bush administration. “Some are additive, some are tightening,” she said. “We thought about it very deliberately.”

Monday, June 12, she continued, is the deadline for public comments on how to streamline government, and already the response has “topped the 100,000 mark. If only 10 percent are thoughtful,” she said, “that would be 10,000 great ideas.” Two “tranches” of reform ideas have already been sent to agencies, she added. June 2 was the deadline for suggestions on improving cross-cutting reforms across agencies, of which some 250 suggestions have arrived. OMB is now discussing which will be the lead agencies for the cross-cutting reforms.

Springer’s hope for the review of agency operations she considers “long overdue” is that agencies “will deliver mission better and spend less time on the things that don’t matter and more on the things that do.”

Springer stressed that top officials are doing more listening than dictating predetermined action plans to agencies. Career people have to “own this,” she added. “It will never become a reality if they feel they didn’t have a part in building it” and feel that their “ideas matter,” she said. “If we do this right, we have a chance collectively to really make a difference for the citizens of the country.”                                       

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