11 Major Agency Reforms in Obama’s Budget

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Last year, President Obama’s budget provided congressional Republicans with “a good laugh.” The majority party in both houses is not even giving the White House that courtesy this time around, with both budget committees announcing they will not hold hearings on the administration's blueprint.

While the budget is dead on arrival in Congress, it is not completely irrelevant. Republicans will now formally begin the process of drafting their own spending guidelines to demonstrate their priorities while stymieing the president’s.

Those efforts will get most of the attention, but the budget also details the minutiae of actually running federal agencies. Obama’s document includes a number of significant proposals to revamp agency structures and programs, some of which the administration can undertake unilaterally and some of which the White House will prioritize when dealing with Congress. Obama made clear in his blueprint he will continue to invest in ways to make government run more efficiently.

“Leadership engagement, clear goals, measurement, analysis of progress and frequent progress reviews to find and promote what works and fix or eliminate what does not are keys to improving the lives of the American people,” the administration wrote.

We’ve combed through the budget and its supplemental documents to uncover some of the biggest reform proposals, including both cross-government and agency-specific initiatives.

1) Evidence-based programs: As he has for several years, Obama emphasized the importance of agencies making decisions based on proven evidence and data. The White House doubled-down on its commitment to that process this year, changing a section of the budget to be titled, “Building the Capacity to Produce and Use Evidence.” In their specific budgets, several agencies detailed how they would use evidence to drive decision making.

The budget would provide $5 million to the Energy Department to establish a new, independent office for the purpose of evaluating the effectiveness and costs of department programs. It would give a 50 percent boost -- a total of $180 million -- to the Education Department’s Innovation Research Program to invest in evidence-based innovations that improve education outcomes.

The Health and Human Services Department would set aside 1 percent of its $849 million nutrition services budget to develop evidence-based reforms for future services, while the Justice Department would receive $4 million to research evidence-based strategies to combat violent extremism.

2) Reorganization authority: First proposed in 2012, Obama brought back in the fiscal 2017 budget his request for fast-track authority to move around or consolidate the exact function of federal components and offices.

“In effect,” the White House wrote, “the president is asking that the next president have the same authority that any business owner has to reorganize or streamline operations to meet changing circumstances and customer demand.”

3) Funding flexibility: Congress last year granted federal agencies the authority to, in consultation with the Office of Management and Budget and lawmakers, transfer up to $15 million from agency budgets to support “cross-cutting management initiatives.” The White House plans to fully take advantage of that authority, saying in the budget it would institutionalize cross-agency efforts rather than dealing with them on a case-by-case basis.

4) VA streamlining: The Veterans Affairs Department laid out several areas it can run more efficiently. The White House said it would continue the MyVA initiative unveiled by Secretary Bob McDonald in 2015, a plan to regionalize, consolidate and simplify operations while reinvesting in customer service. It also proposed Congress adopt legislation to streamline the veterans benefit appeals process while adding 242 employees to the office’s staff.

Finally, VA called for reforming of its Care in the Community program, which offers veterans access to health care outside department facilities. The current structure is “plagued by inefficiency, inconsistency and places unnecessary burdens on veterans.” The plan would streamline clinical and administration processes and better coordinate continuum of care.

5) Additions and subtractions at DHS: The administration proposed creating a new program office at the Homeland Security Department to halt human trafficking. It would focus on law enforcement training, policy coordination, public-private partnerships and public awareness campaigns.

Meanwhile, DHS would consolidate the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives Office. That plan, the administration said, would “strengthen coordination across the department and streamline organization structure.”

6) New shop at Transportation: The budget funds a new office created in the major, five-year transportation authorization bill passed in December. The National Surface Transportation Innovative Finance Bureau will serve as a “one-stop shop for state and local governments to receive federal funding.”

7) Ramped up Pentagon cuts: The budget seeks to codify a 2015 directive to cut 25 percent of headquarters costs -- from fiscal 2014 levels -- by fiscal 2020. That represents a more severe reduction than the 20 percent slash proposed in the fiscal 2016 budget. The cuts would save $154 million in fiscal 2017, the White House said, and the department would shed 5,200 civilian employees.

The administration also said the Pentagon should gear up for a base realignment and closure procedure in fiscal 2019.

8) Crowdsourcing science: The White House called on the National Science Foundation to interact more with the public, saying it can solve problems by asking for more input and “relying on the participation of the public to collect data over large geographic areas.” The administration said it would expand Research Coordination Networks, Early Concept Grants for Exploratory Research and other funding to promote scientists, mathematicians and engineers that “involve the public in their research efforts.”

9) Shared services: Obama’s budget would fund Unified Shared Services Management, a program launched by the General Services Administration in October. The goal, the White House said, is to improve delivery and increase adoption of shared services. The administration suggested the program would expand shared services beyond financial management and human resources to include acquisitions, grants and information technology.

10) Agency priority goals: In October, OMB announced the final 92 agency priority goals for the Obama administration. The progress of those goals is tracked on Performance.gov, but the “next steps” section of the site for many of the concluding objectives are still blank.

In his final budget, Obama laid out action plans for each of the goals. Looking ahead, agencies continue to build upon the successes and performance outcomes achieved over the past two years while charting new and even more ambitious priority performance goals,” the White House wrote. The administration also laid out agencies’ 2017 annual performance plans, which were first launched in 2014.

11) Cyber reforms: Obama’s budget proposed a 35 percent increase in IT security spending and the creation of a new U.S. chief information security officer. It also proposed spending $62 million to hire cybersecurity professionals across government. Read more about the cyber and IT proposals in the president’s budget here and here

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