After a Slow Start, Trump’s Civil Service Reformers Connect With Experts

Civil service experts generally give OMB's Margaret Weichert good marks for her outreach to advance the Trump administration's government reform efforts. Civil service experts generally give OMB's Margaret Weichert good marks for her outreach to advance the Trump administration's government reform efforts. Cameron Whitman Photography LLC

On Sept. 12, the Office of Management and Budget joined with the Mitre Corp. in hosting some 150 agency alumni, corporate specialists and academics at the White House for an off-the-record symposium on fixing what ails the federal workforce.

The freewheeling discussions about pay, performance, reskilling and technology turned out to be “a really interesting brainstorming session, with lots of ideas on the table,” Terry Gerton, president and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration, told Government Executive. “They were very interested in practical examples of people doing real innovation, and what best practices look like.”

A key organizer was Margaret Weichert, OMB’s deputy director for management, who made her bones as a private-sector banking and technology consultant invoking the vocabulary of Six Sigma. Only a few days earlier she had offered similar overtures at a Bipartisan Policy Center forum on evidence-based policymaking.

“It would be foolish to throw out good practices that were put into place by a previous administration,” she said, specifically lauding the value of Government Accountability Office reports on the use of evidence and data to determine workforce reforms. In crafting the president’s management agenda, she said, “we don’t have to recreate things every four years.”

The recipe for making change the country wants, Weichert added, is to “change the way we actually make decisions and operate with data.” That can happen “if we can combine passion and rhetoric and profound commitment with the actual facts.”

Such respect for experts who spent years in the vineyards of civil service reform and agency reorganization is a far cry from the heady early days of the Trump administration. During that chaotic transition period, the president-elect discarded much of the pre-election planning materials.

Once in office, Trump and White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney began issuing piecemeal executive orders and secretive reorganization memos with strong rhetoric about shrinking government, reducing consultation with labor unions and making it easier to fire agency employees. (Three of those executive orders in August were largely shot down by a federal district judge for violating the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act.)

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The Trump team on June 18 released its more comprehensive reform and reorganization plan. It has since been proceeding without Congress on some plans to reshuffle responsibilities between the Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration. And it is doing that planning while Trump himself defies Congress and demands a federal employee pay freeze that could harm retention and recruiting.

Neither the administration nor this Congress went through the formal process of comprehensive civil service reform that occurred when the Carter administration embarked on a journey that led to the last set of landmark reforms.

And neither OMB nor the Office of Personnel Management responded to Government Executive queries on the role of good-government groups in their reform efforts. But the good-government regulars stood ready to talk.

A Surprising Receptiveness

The Trump reformers have drawn from “a list of standard proposals that have been floating around for years. Some were in the executive order on the disciplinary process, others from the Government Accountability Office high-risk list,” said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University who has written widely on the size and composition of government.

“Personnel reform is often seen as a good-government activity, and the options are pretty clear from what we’ve seen in the private sector.”

The problem, Light said, is that new authorities in “an anti-government administration might be used to decimate the civil service. The question is whether there are ideas and mechanisms that should be given to the Trump administration.” Such tools as accelerated hiring and contracting out should be implemented in a way that “protects the basic goals of the civil service system and don’t expose hard-working employees to those tools arbitrarily,” Light said. “There can’t be a political edge to them.”

Paul Verkuil, the author of the 2017 book Valuing Bureaucracy who served five years in the Obama administration as chairman of the Administrative Conference of the United States, said that some Trump leaders “don’t really care about getting ideas, which is perhaps a unique characteristic of this administration. But it is the career types at OMB who are interested,” Verkuil added. “There is some sense among career folks of a need to reach out and tackle the problems, and they’re not totally despairing about the prospect of getting something sensible done.”

Interviews with leaders from good-government groups indicate a fresh optimism.

“Margaret Weichert has been extremely open to ideas and engagement in the good-government community,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, which has been helping the administration in leadership training. “She has welcomed input from the partnership and other groups and is really keen on learning.”

One theme in the president’s management agenda is “building off the work of prior administrations rather than believing things can be done from scratch,” Stier added. One of her OMB colleagues keeps a baton with the names of predecessors as a reminder of the value of continuity.

Others agree that some of the anti-government White House rhetoric can be worked around. “I can’t speak for all the good-government groups, but people are learning how to respond to different signals from different portions of this administration,” said NAPA’s Gerton, who commended the responsiveness of Weichert and Federal Chief Information Officer Suzette Kent.

“From the NAPA perspective we feel very confident that when we have issues or concerns, we can raise them,” she said, citing working groups that meet with OMB professionals to discuss issues such as executive branch reorganization, technology and grants management. “At the same time, they reach out and want to know what we’re thinking.”

Others consider a delay in responsiveness normal for a new administration. “Until they get their people in place, there’s not likely to be a lot of interaction,” said Tom Ross, president of the Volcker Alliance. That group, whose mission is to advance effective management, just published, with the Partnership for Public Service and the Senior Executives Association, a new vision for the Senior Executive Service. “We do have concerns about exactly what direction those people at the top are taking,” he said. “But you look at the action rather than just the talk.”

Ross and colleagues have written to OPM Director Jeff Pon “laying out options on hiring reform, market-sensitive pay, accountability and SES mobility,” he added. “It’s hard to know who they rely on, but they seem open to input.” Dustin Brown, described by Ross as “probably the highest-ranking civil servant at OMB,” is currently on a six-month sabbatical with the Volcker Alliance.

Pon, having had a career in human resources, Ross said, “wants to get things right for the workforce. But like everyone else working in that environment, they have some freedom, but not complete freedom.”

Dan Chenok, executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government, said Trump appointees Weichert and Pon, along with General Services Administration chief Emily Murphy, “have been engaging with good-government groups across the spectrum. I’ve seen a sincere desire to gain insight from the perspective of nonprofits and groups of experts with an interest in government reform,” he said. Praising the president’s management agenda and its agency priority goals, Chenok added, “If we separate the particular circumstances of the current administration and go back to the Clinton-Gore Reinventing Government campaign, you’ll find that ‘do more with less’ is not a new theme, and is bipartisan.”

But some skepticism persists. Pon and Weichert are supposed to be good, Light said, “but at end of the day, they work for a dismantler-in-chief.” Light is also wary of the way Weichert and Pon stress the superiority of private-sector solutions. “The private sector is also struggling with skills gaps and high turnover among the Millennials,” he said. “We talk about it as a government problem, but it may be a generational problem.”

What’s to be Done?

A sampling of the good-government community’s prescriptions for reform will be published on Sept. 25 in a NAPA and Volcker Alliance white paper. It will update a 2017 plan for creating a 21st century public workforce.

“There isn’t much that almost everyone in Washington agrees about, but just about everyone agrees that the current civil service system is broken,” said one its authors, Don Kettl, a professor of public policy with the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin, located at the LBJ Washington Center. “But the consensus stops there,” other than on some key steps, he said. “The problem is finding a way to move it forward. I’m leery about another commission and about whether another collection of great ideas would get any further than in the previous round. What we most need is political consensus [and] a commitment to doing what has to be done to make government work on behalf of citizens. That’s why we have a civil service, and that’s what true reform has to accomplish.”

Small workforce reform steps have already been taken through, for example, in the National Defense Authorization Act, Kettl added. But “what is hardest is the collection of in-between steps. There’s where expert views can help the executive branch—and the White House—navigate past the minefields that would destroy some efforts now, and through the thickets that have trapped previous efforts.”

Just because there’s no omnibus civil service reform bill doesn’t mean progress can’t be made by small groups of lawmakers. Often mentioned are the bipartisan legislative efforts of Sens. James Lankford, R-Okla., and Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., in such areas as recruiting, regulatory reform and transparency among inspectors general.

Also exciting to the good-government crowd is the Trump’s plan released in June for a GEAR center, which “envisions an enterprisewide capability that works with researchers, academics, non-profits, private industry, and interested state and local governments to look at the long-term strategic needs of the government as a holistic enterprise.”

Also well received was the batch of government reforms laid out by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., to “end corruption in government.” They include such specifics as requiring agencies to release more documents on ethics and communications with Congress, more disclosure of stock ownership by federal employees and expansion of Freedom of Information Act obligations to private-sector federal contractors.

“These things have an impact on the workforce,” the partnership’s Stier said. “We have to make sure public servants are looking out for the public rather than their own welfare. But an element often overlooked is the unintended consequences,” he warned. “You can make it difficult to get highly qualified and knowledgeable people in to the system.”

The upshot of the Democrats’ proposals, Light said, “is that we want bigger government but we also want major reforms. It’s not enough to talk about more spending. The swing voters may not like all the cuts, but they also think the federal government wastes a lot of money.”

Verkuil has hopes for bipartisan reform that addresses “regulatory capture” of agencies by industry and by contractors. “They give political contributions and stack the agencies,” he said. “The civil servants are getting beat up every day and have had their numbers reduced while the contractor regime marches on.”

Weichert herself told the Bipartisan Policy Center that she is excited about the work some consider “the boring, plumbing aspects of government.” Citing data, she doesn’t see the agenda as a plan to cut government. “We don’t actually have a problem of too many federal workers,” she said, citing the coming retirement wave. The problem is a “gap” of skill sets among the 30- to 40-year-olds.

The real obstacles to reform, Weichert said during a Sept. 9 appearance on the WJLA-TV show “Government Matters,” arise in the implementation. “We need to be rooted in a deep understanding of root causes of challenges of why things haven’t changed.”

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