Executive Branch Vacancies Jeopardize Trump's Planned Reforms

The ability of career officials to step into the breach is limited.

For many senior government officials, June 30 is D-Day.

That’s when the Trump White House wants leaders at every agency to submit proposals to “maximize employee performance” as spelled out in an April memo from the Office of Management and Budget. OMB’s guidance aims to make good on President Trump’s March 13 executive order on a comprehensive plan for reorganizing the executive branch.” In other words, senior officials need to identify new efficiencies and possible staff cuts to be woven into next year’s budget proposals.

The administration is attempting such a task—a proven challenge under any circumstances—when hundreds of top agency jobs remain vacant or are occupied by officials serving in an acting capacity.

Trump has yet to nominate anyone for 441 of the top 559 federal jobs, according to the latest presidential appointee tracker maintained by the Washington Post and the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, while 25 nominees await confirmation.

Agencies targeted for the largest budget cuts include the State Department, where the positions of deputy and undersecretary of management and resources are empty under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and deputy John Sullivan.

The Environmental Protection Agency, under Administrator Scott Pruitt, is operating with a dozen acting officials in the key jobs.

And the Office of Personnel Management must press forward on workforce reform efforts under acting director Kathleen McGettigan because Trump’s nominee to lead OPM, agency veteran George Nesterczuk, has not yet been confirmed. In April, McGettigan was joined by Trump transition “beachhead team” member Jason Simmonds, the new chief of staff whose main experience is in state government in North Carolina.

Will that June 30 deadline bring thoughtful efficiency proposals?

“It’s a very tall order,” Don Kettl, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, told Government Executive. “The sheer scope of what OMB has requested is enormous, and the analytical challenges of meeting the executive order’s requirements are huge. Add to that OMB’s hope of wrapping that around personnel downsizing and stronger performance metrics, and the lift is even heavier.”

Though agencies have begun considering their fiscal 2019 submissions due in the fall, Congress hasn’t given clear signals about where it’s going with its budget resolution” that is usually due in May, Kettl added. The Trump budget’s embrace of deep spending cuts “puts the acting officials in a very tough spot: they have to do the spade work for very, very big decisions, but they don’t have the authority that comes from Senate confirmation,” he added. “It’s hard to remember any administration trying to take such a big bite in such a short time.”

Former OMB Controller Danny Werfel, now with the Boston Consulting Group, told the “Government Matters” TV show on May 28 that “there’s no magic bullet to solve this stuff.” He said “it’s a difficult situation, heading into the summer.” Agency planners are already preparing the fiscal 2019 budget while Congress processes the fiscal 2018 budget and agencies work within the fiscal 2017 budget. “What baseline do you use?” he asked.

In the past, the governmentwide Chief Financial Officers Council has met to collaborate on anticipating what Congress does with the president’s stated goals, Werfel noted. Agencies “should have some recognition of the various scenarios, not be caught off guard by any of them,” Werfel said. Some of the proposals “may not happen this budget cycle, but maybe the next.”

Stepping Into the Breach

The ability of career officials—many of whom have lived through dozens of budget cycles while working in their given specialties—to step into the breach, however, is limited by civil service structures and traditions. “From what I’m seeing, the Trump administration is taking advantage of the career folks and valuing their advice in implementation of the reorganization order,” said Bill Valdez, president of the Senior Executives Association, who in March wrote to Trump asking him to ease his hiring freeze and appoint Senior Executive Service members to fill vacancies. “They can’t do it without cooperation of the career people.”

Many of those government veterans “are standing by waiting for instructions,” Valdez added. “And if there is no political leadership, then the career individuals have to step up. All I’ve heard says that agencies are moving forward with development of plans, and getting some additional guidance from OMB and offers of assistance to develop and answer questions.”

But in no case has Valdez heard of career leaders “trying to pursue an agenda outside of the agency reform plans. The reality is, they can’t do it,” he said. “This is something that’s come from the administration, and they expect to have it implemented through their political appointees.”

That caveat against career people taking political initiative is seconded by Ed DeSeve, a National Academy of Public Administration fellow and senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania's Fels Institute. In nearly every agency, “you’ve got a secretary, and if there is a political issue, it will be referred to the secretary’s office, to a chief of staff or someone who is not confirmable who is liaison with the White House or OMB,” he said. “The career person would make a recommendation, but not a decision.”

The current situation varies by agency, DeSeve added, with a “mixed bag of either political or career people who automatically assume responsibility, all under the watchful eye of someone appointed by the president as a liaison.”

DeSeve stressed that the political appointees are constrained until they’re confirmed by the Senate. When he became chief financial officer of the Housing and Urban Development Department at the start of the Clinton administration, he said, he arrived in February or March but wasn’t confirmed until Memorial Day. During that interim, “I could provide advice and go to meetings, but I couldn’t direct anyone.” His career deputy helped him “seamlessly” understand what the secretary wanted until he was fully in the job.

Debra Roth, a partner in Shaw Bransford Roth who gives legal counsel to many senior executives, pointed out that while career officials bearing the title “acting” have “the full power of the job,” it’s still a complicated situation for them.

“Career employees are reticent to lead in these policy political decisions. I would imagine many of them are not making these decisions unilaterally but working in conjunction with the political arm inside OMB. They’re implementers, the make-it-happen people. They’re not the deciders,” she added. When the organization is shorthanded, “they’ll babysit the agency and keep it operating. But moving it in new direction requires a change of policy, which is not part of their profile.”

Indeed, survey analysis by Mallory Barg Bulman, director of research at the Partnership for Public Service, shows that among GS-14s and 15s, the percentage who want to join the SES is less than 60 percent—perhaps because not every government employee can embrace the higher levels of accountability in the upper echelons.

Kettl observes that “many of these acting officials are highly experienced and very good. Many of them have been waiting a long time to make big changes in their agencies. But the administration’s budget suggests some truly draconian cuts in some agencies,” he said. “This could put stark limits on the administration’s ability to meet its own ambition. The acting officials don’t have the clout that comes with Senate confirmation. The result could be a long list of plans that fall short of the administration’s big ambitions.”