Survey: Trump Should Empower Politically Appointed Agency No. 2s

Andrew Harnik/AP

Ranked usually one rung below agency heads, the government’s chief operating officers are key to enactment of President Trump’s management agenda, according to a survey of experienced federal employees.

And like career employees, operations officers should be held accountable under a performance plan, said the Wednesday report based on interviews and a summit with more than 30 former COOs and other top officials by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton.

The research, which consulted private-sector leaders as well, was done both before and after the November presidential election.

“Federal COOs will make or break the ability of agencies, and the government as a whole, to reach the Trump administration’s goals,” the report said. “Success will require consistent and relentless focus by COOs, and close and sustained collaboration among them, as the management leaders of the government enterprise.

But unlike a previous survey stressing the importance of agency No. 2s as the “crucial bridge between mission and management,” this set of recommendations comes as the new administration has fallen behind its predecessors on filling key top-level vacancies. Out of 558 key positions requiring Senate confirmation, the Trump White House has named no nominee for 419, and only 42 appointees have been confirmed, according to the latest appointee tracker complied by The Washington Post and the Partnership. Indeed, of the 15 deputy secretaries in Cabinet departments who by law serve as COOs, the Partnership noted, only four have been confirmed.

But an advantage enjoyed by the Trump Office of Management and Budget, the report acknowledged, is that it convened the presidential management team early and in March tasked agencies with proposing new efficiencies as part of a  governmentwide reorganization effort.  

“The president has placed this emphasis on management earlier than his predecessors, indicating the effective operation of government is a top priority,” the report noted. “He created the White House Office of American Innovation to bring in new ideas from the private sector.”

Hence Trump may have a unique opportunity, co-author Ron Sanders, a Booz Allen senior executive adviser, told Government Executive, to be bold. Potential reforms -- while dovetailing with the Trump agenda of shrinking the role of government -- would hold COOs accountable, engage them with the work force, encourage them to think beyond their own agencies, and finish the worthy projects of predecessors.

“Holding these individuals accountable is where the rubber meets the road,” Sanders said. “The career people all have performance contracts, so we’ve made a fairly bold recommendation in that Trump ought to establish performance accountability with the politicals as well.”

The career employees who have been attending the President’s Management Council meetings as substitutes from agencies with vacancies “are a pretty formidable lot -- seasoned, savvy, archetypes of what you’d expect of career civil servants, with the skills you’d want,” Sanders said. “All of my network tells me they’re bent on accomplishing the mission.”

To be sure, he added, “it’s always better to have a COO in place, but the agencies’ senior career civil servants don’t have to do much adjusting with respect to the lessons for COOs.” They have seen proposed budget cuts in past cycles, Sanders said—“it’s déjà vu all over again.”

The report observed that: “If COOs are going to reorganize government, they will need to work together, using their collective resources, experiences, insights and abilities….It is important that COOs build on our government’s successes, and grow and extend them throughout the agencies and departments.”

Most agencies years ago identified the duplication within their own organization, Sanders said, pointing to the many Government Accountability Office reports on redundancies. Most of the duplication is “between agencies,” he said, which is why COOs should work with the President’s Management Council  to put it “on steroids” and to share plans enterprisewide.

The report offered case studies of specific agencies successes, detailing the Food and Drug Administration’s use of data and collaboration to identify eight times more listeria outbreaks, for example, and the Transportation Department’s initiative to speed up the multiagency permitting of large infrastructure projects.

Among the report’s concrete recommendations:

  • That COOs be held accountable on behalf of the agency by creating and submitting a performance plan and top priorities for judgment and progress reports by the agency secretary or deputy director for management at OMB.
  • That agencies hire more short-termers with critical skills.
  • That COOs seek to hold career executives accountable without creating a chilling effect that prevents them from reporting incidents or problems.
  • That COOs take action to make more of their agencies’ data transparent; that COOs use change-management strategies to communicate with and guide employees through what could be significant cuts and major shifts in agency makeup and operations.
  • That COOs include the career workforce in meetings and strategy sessions, both to benefit from their institutional knowledge and ideas about how to get things done in government, and to solidify good working relationships between short-term political appointees and the career workforce.

Sanders acknowledged that Trump’s unfolding agency reorganization plans “will represent a fairly substantial change in agencies. But civil servants want good government as well as any and all political leaders,” he added. Hence the newly empowered COOs “have to be upfront and straight with career civil servants, give the rationale, make the mission case if you can. They’ll be there with you if you put it on the table.”

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