As promised in President Trump’s fiscal 2019 budget request, administration officials on Tuesday rolled out what they called a “relaunch” of the president’s management agenda, focusing on “execution” of government modernization ideas they acknowledged will sound familiar.
“We know that the public is frustrated with government’s perceived inability to deliver quality services for the American people,” Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director for Management Margaret Weichert said before a “town hall” listening session in Kansas City, Mo. Kansas City has 50,000 federal employees, she noted, making the federal government that city’s largest employer.
“You’ve heard other administrations say this before—we’re not inventing something wholly new. But the focus is on getting 'er done, the focus is on the execution,” said Weichert, speaking in her third week in the White House job after 27 years in the private sector.
“People don’t always think about government, but when we need government services, we expect them to work,” she said in a YouTube video on the management agenda released earlier Tuesday. “Federal customers deserve an experience similar to private-sector customers,” she added.
Weichert stressed the “importance of starting with the customer,” and called information technology “the backbone of how government serves the public in the 21st century.”
Promising data to “track progress on our work so that America can hold us accountable,” Weichert expressed hope that the Trump management agenda will “drive a deep-seated transformation” over the long term.
The agenda’s three key “drivers” are modern information technology, data accountability and transparency, and a modern workforce.
The management agenda overview released Tuesday does not include the text of agency reorganization plans. (The White House did not respond to Government Executive inquiries on when these would be released).
The new vision builds on a diagnosis of a government that has grown sclerotic because too many silos “impede cross-agency collaboration while inadequate data inhibits evidence-based decision making,” the document said. Addressing federal employees, Weichert said, “We make it too hard for you to hire, to reskill, and, yes, to deal with poor performers.”
The plan offers 14 Cross-Agency Priority Goals to coordinate and publicly track implementation across federal agencies. They include expanding shared services, “getting payments right,” improving management of major acquisitions, modernizing infrastructure permitting, and security clearance and credentialing reform.
Each goal is laid out in a format that states the challenge, the goal, “what success looks like,” and the team responsible for implementing it.
The plan also promises a “realigning” of the federal workforce to better link jobs to mission. “The administration intends to partner with Congress on overhauling the statutory and regulatory rules that have, over time, created an incomprehensible and unmanageable civil service system,” the overview stated. “Agencies must critically examine their workforces to determine what jobs they need to accomplish their core missions.”
Agencies partnering with OMB, Weichert noted, have been revising their strategic plans. One sample result is that the Environmental Protection Agency is reducing the number of cities needing air quality standards from 166 to 138 in two years, she said. The Treasury Department will trim approval time for alcohol and tobacco business permits by 20 percent.
On federal pay, the agenda asserts that “it is important to appropriately compensate personnel based on mission needs and labor market dynamics. The existing compensation system fails in this regard.” The document then repeats the fiscal 2019 budget proposal to forgo an across-the-board pay increase while realigning “incentives by enhancing performance-based pay and slowing the frequency of tenure-based step increases.”
The Trump approach aims to create “agile organizations and processes” that reward top performers with critical skill sets, attract top talent and “remove employees with the worst performance and conduct violations.”
Accompanying Weichert to Kansas City were General Services Administration chief Emily Murphy, Office of Personnel Management Director Jeff Pon and Federal Chief Information Officer Suzette Kent.
The management “actions taken by President Trump represent the most aggressive commitment to creating a modern and efficient government of any I’ve seen,” Murphy said. She promised “long overdue” IT modernization led by her agency “uniquely positioned” to guide the effort across the government. She said she would continue the push for shared services in functions such as payroll—where five systems, she said, could be reduced to one.
Pon called himself the first “director of OPM who actually has HR experience in 40 years.” OPM’s personnel data systems, he said, are “clunky, not very efficient and not very streamlined, not very data-driven.”
He stressed that key jobs such as those in cybersecurity change rapidly—many of them didn’t exist 10 or 20 years ago. Pon criticized the rigidity of the General Schedule job classifications and OPM’s myriad “paper-driven” systems. He called for a fresh look at recruitment, retention and “separation management,” arguing that “the whole philosophy of having a job for life is a thing of the past.”
The new OPM chief praised the Trump “let’s get it done approach,” saying modernizations “haven’t been done for the past 10 to 20 years.”
Government reform specialists generally reacted positively to the new management agenda. “Hallelujah! For the first time in many years we have a framework with which to drive and measure improvements in the performance and efficiency of the federal government," said Robert Shea, principal for the public sector at Grant Thornton LLP. “Many of the elements of the agenda aren’t new initiatives. Some have greater emphasis than in the past—customer experience, results-oriented accountability for grants. But what’s been missing is an overarching structure we can use to see where the focus is and judge progress.”
Carl DeMaio, president and founder of the Performance Institute, which consults with government agencies, told Government Executive that “having a formal management agenda is crucial for an administration to assure that both political appointees and career managers are constantly trying to improve the effectiveness of programs. It becomes the mandate of what you want to emphasize,” he said.
The new agenda uses similar terminology to that included in the Government Performance and Results Act, the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act and President Obama’s management agenda, he said, adding, “it’s a good thing that they’re building on the previous, bipartisan agenda of management improvement efforts of the past few years.”
Shelley Metzenbaum, a leader in agency performance at OMB during the Obama administration, said that she is “distressed” by some of the specific goals “as well as its abandonment of some important cross-agency and agency goals, such as energy efficiency. Still, it is good to see the administration embrace and build on the goal-focused, data-informed discipline established by the prior administration, adopted based on a hard look at lessons learned in the federal and other governments.”
Overall, Metzenbaum added, the management agenda reflects “a healthy maturity: setting clear goals, looking for root causes of problems, and identifying key drivers to craft strategies for governmentwide and agency improvement.” But Metzenbaum said she would prefer more “mission-focused” goals. Why, for example, she asked, “isn’t there a goal for the president’s espoused priority of reducing opioid abuse, naming a goal leader, setting forth an action plan, and committing to quarterly reporting on progress, problems and planned next steps?”
Partnership for Public Service President and CEO Max Stier applauded the IT focus of the agenda and called the effort “a good start.” But implementation “will require collaboration and cooperation from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue,” he said in a statement. “There is ample ground for bipartisan cooperation in addressing the archaic civil service system that has become an obstacle to a well-functioning government."