Trump’s Separate Pursuit of Two Government Reform Plans Will Hurt Both

A more connected and aligned strategy is more likely to drive sustainable, effective results.

The Trump administration has launched two important initiatives to reform—even transform—government. The President’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner is leading the new Office of American Innovation, with the mission to “make recommendations to the president on policies and plans that improve government operations and services, improve the quality of life for Americans now and in the future, and spur job creation.” Additionally, the Office of Management and Budget has instructed agencies to soon present plans to restructure their operations to improve efficiency and reduce costs.

Let’s leave aside the hyperbole accompanying the OMB directions (“rebuilding from scratch”) and the fact that much of the language associated with the launch of the OAI has a familiar ring—such is normal with any administration. The reality is that both initiatives have real potential if they are well executed; neither has to result in massive mission elimination or a dilution of service to the taxpayer; and both are based on sound principles.

A number of experts—including Deloitte’s Bill Eggers, Don Kettl of the University of Maryland, and Grant Thornton’s Robert Shea—have articulately described some of the opportunities and challenges these initiatives present, including that the government (and taxpayer) would benefit from more business-like practices and processes. And there is little doubt that nearly every agency (and its stakeholders) would benefit from a careful scrub of its missions and operations and the use of evidence-based data to eliminate redundancies and cost, expand cross-agency collaboration, and improve performance. As such, both the OAI and OMB efforts should not only be applauded, but actively supported as well.

That said, a very basic question remains unanswered: Why are there two such initiatives? By any measure, the objectives of both OAI and the OMB “reorganization” directive are related, if not entirely intertwined. But they are not obviously in synch. And that could create both confusion and redundancy.

For example, the OAI appears to be putting a premium on employing advanced technology to really change the way the government functions. As I and others have written previously, such a shift could improve performance and reduce costs. At the same time, the OMB memo speaks to the role of technology in much more modest, almost traditional terms. Only a few paragraphs in the twenty-plus page memo are devoted to technology and even there the references are only to basic business processes—human resources, accounting, procurement, etc.—that could benefit from modernization. Nowhere does the memo talk about the tremendous power and potential of a digital transformation—or, maybe even more importantly, about how reorganizing and restructuring ought to heavily rely on, even be driven by, digitization. Similarly, there is only limited discussion of the organizational and human capital implications of that transformation.

So what happens when agencies deliver their reorganization plans, based, as directed, on the OMB memo, but fail to fully capture the possibilities and even eventual recommendations that come out of the Oval Office? Will they have to start over? Wouldn’t it make more sense to combine the work of OAI and the reorganization into one holistic initiative?

Then there is the question of the budget. Agencies are developing their reorganization plans mostly after the President’s 2018 budget proposal has been essentially completed. Reorganization plans, based on careful evidence-based evaluations, represent the logical foundation for the next budget. But if the budget is not aligned with the plans, how can even the most worthy reorganization be executed?

Finally, the reorganization initiative would benefit from clearer guidance on its objectives and the specific problems that need to be solved. Too often, discussions around the size of government (the breadth and cost of its missions) and the reach of government (the extent to which government does things it should not do) are conflated.  Where programs do not pass a cost-benefit assessment, but are otherwise legitimate activities, to what degree are agencies encouraged to transform their operations as a means of turning those analyses around? The OMB guidance implies that they should, but how are they to complete such complex analyses in such a constrained timeframe?

Similarly, one of the most common rationales for eliminating regulations is that compliance is far too expensive and burdensome. But what if, through the better and smarter application of technology, the costs of compliance could be dramatically reduced? Would that change the equation?

In short, while the administration has launched two potentially valuable and important efforts, the emphasis on immediate and significant changes and results could actually hurt both. It would be more effective if the OAI and OMB initiatives were combined and aligned and together formed the foundation for the next budget submittal. That might delay restructuring, potentially until after the 2019 budget is finalized. But it certainly doesn’t preclude pursuing a handful of near term “wins” to give the initiative energy. Meanwhile, a more connected and aligned strategy will drive more sustainable, effective results and give the administration and the agencies the important time needed to build the case for change.

Right now, OMB and OAI are traveling different roads. Now is the time to put them on the same journey.