The Clock Is Ticking on Trump’s Management Agenda

Without the roadmap of a viable management agenda, it’s hard to see how proposed reorganization plans could be effective.

We are now almost a year into the new administration, so it’s not really “new” anymore. Indeed, 11 months is a major chunk of time for any administration. I’ll leave it to others to debate the merits of various policy pronouncements during the last year, but one thing is clear: While better government management was a major theme of the Trump campaign, a real management agenda—one that is cogent, coordinated, leadership-driven, and focused on improving institutional and mission performance—is not yet in evidence. I’ve been in and around government for more than three decades, across five administrations. Like many of my colleagues, I would have expected more in the way of such a plan by now. And the clock is ticking.

It is true that every agency was required to submit to the White House Office of Management and Budget an individual restructuring plan. The details of those plans, as finalized by OMB, will presumably be reflected in the fiscal 2019 budget, which we will see in February. Although some of the agency submissions have been shared publicly, many have not. And thus the budget release will be our first real look at them and their implications, impacts and benefits.

But reorganization plans and a management agenda are very different things. The reorganization plans mostly involve the “what”: What are our mission priorities? What is the optimal organizational structure through which to achieve our goals? What changes, reductions or other adjustments might we make to better ensure success? Those are important questions, but a management agenda is more than that. A cogent and coordinated management agenda lays out the “how”: How will we change policies, practices, culture, and more to enable the desired outcomes? Without such a plan or roadmap, it’s hard to see how the proposed organizational changes can or will deliver the promised benefits.

There are other causes for concern as well. For example, we do not yet have a confirmed deputy director for management at OMB, even though it is through that position that a management agenda is typically developed and executed. We also lack senior management officials in a number of agencies, either by design (such as at State) or by dint of a painfully slow Senate confirmation process. Make no mistake. As much as Congress shares in any blame for the confirmation process, this is one of those rare occasions in which one party controls the White House and both Houses of Congress. And which nominations are moved and in what order is often driven by White House priorities—and that sends its own message.

Simply put, the president’s 2019 budget proposal is fairly close to final form and time is running out for it to reflect a meaningful, governmentwide management vision to serve as an essential baseline for this and future budget proposals. The issue also goes beyond the budget. A management agenda sets the administration’s priorities for the levers that are themselves central to the functioning of government—technology, acquisition, human capital and more. There appears to be no coordinated technology policy, such as emerged during the Clinton Administration’s National Performance Review, President George W. Bush’s E-Government initiative, or the Obama Administration’s innovation agenda. Meanwhile, although there are a range of generally disconnected acquisition initiatives underway, particularly at the General Services Administration and the Defense Department, how do they all intersect? And because they are inextricably linked, how do the acquisition initiatives align with a technology agenda?

Ditto for human capital—the lifeblood of the government. The linkages to technology, acquisition, even organizational change are obvious. All we know is that Congress wants to double the probationary period for federal employees (a step fairly described as being more about punishment than performance or empowerment) and continues to tinker with employee salaries and benefits (which is seen similarly). But what about a broader federal workforce agenda? What about the tremendous demographic, training and development gaps, let alone cultural challenges, that have long existed and are getting no better? Barely a peep.

A colleague of mine has said many times that change and transformation bear a lot of similarities to judo. No one move stands alone; success demands the coordination and alignment of a whole series of moves, many of which flow from each other. In the case of institutional change, those moves include but are not limited to clear leadership vision, timing, intra- and inter-organizational and cross functional collaboration, and coordination—little of which has yet been evident. By this point, nearly a year in, the Administration has had more than adequate time to put together a comprehensive management plan that supports its objectives. Now is the time to share, debate and discuss that plan, and to make sure the requisite leadership is in place to implement it. The clock is ticking.