The Missing Piece in OMB’s Push for High-Value Government

The administration should seize the opportunity to catalyze high-value work at all levels of government.

It may feel like winter in Washington, but the White House Office of Management and Budget wants a spring cleaning within the executive branch. The target isn’t dirt or clutter, but rather unneeded rules and requirements imposed on agencies.

The push is one of OMB’s cross-agency priority goals, described as “shifting from low-value to high-value work.” It calls on central management offices such as OMB, the Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration to remove “unnecessary and obsolete policies, guidance, and reporting requirements” so that agencies can better focus on accomplishing their missions. It also encourages agencies to reduce their own administrative requirements, regulations, and internal reporting obligations.

We believe this “high-value work” goal is very useful. Rules and regulations are often added to programs by Congress or agencies in an effort to fix problems or protect taxpayer dollars. But these well-intentioned requirements can build up like layers of sediment, making programs less flexible and innovative. Rarely do government officials look back and ask, “What requirements can we remove?” The “spring cleaning” envisioned by OMB is something the federal government should do every year.

There is, however, an important missing piece to the goal. As currently structured, it is focused internally, designed to reduce hurdles to better agency performance. Yet much of federal policy is implemented at the state and local levels. To truly catalyze high-value work within government, we also need to free up states and localities from unnecessary and obsolete policies, guidance and reporting requirements.

We believe the high-value work goal should be expanded to encourage federal agencies to identify and eliminate unneeded requirements within their programs as well as those written into grants and contracts that inhibit state and local innovation, flexibility and outcomes. It should also refocus those programs, grants and contracts on results, including requirements to track outcomes or measure impact. In short, there should be a quid pro quo: more flexibility in exchange for more accountability for results.

To be sure, the CAP goal should not become an endorsement for harmful de-regulation or eliminating protections for vulnerable populations. Steps by this administration to hinder our nation’s response to climate change and to remove protections for student-loan recipients, for example, represent deregulation without more meaningful and useful accountability processes.

A new push to support state and local performance would dovetail with other administration and congressional efforts. An example is the CAP goal promoting results-oriented accountability for grants. That goal aims to maximize the value of federal grant funding by reducing compliance reporting burdens for state, local and nonprofit grantees in exchange for a clearer demonstration of results. An expanded high-value work CAP goal, involving state and local partners as we’ve described, would be in the same spirit but would include non-grant programs and contracts as well.

Another example, passed as part of the 2018 Bipartisan Budget Act, is the Social Impact Partnerships to Pay for Results Act. That legislation creates a standing pool of capital to support outcomes-based financing, helping support states and localities that use evidence-based approaches to tackle priority social-policy issues, from employment to education to child welfare. An expanded high-value work CAP goal would help more state and local communities use innovative, outcomes-focused approaches, including those that leverage SIPPRA.

Strengthening a focus on results, of course, requires state and local governments to have adequate data and analytical capacity to learn what’s working, what isn’t, and to make adjustments. That’s why, in expanding the high-value work CAP goal, OMB should find ways to support that capacity-building. To do that, OMB should clarify that states and localities are expected to conduct data analyses and program evaluations to inform continuous improvements and that they may use a portion of their program dollars for that purpose.

Why did OMB frame the high-value work CAP goal narrowly, focusing on the performance of federal agencies and not states and localities? Our guess is that it was simply an effort to “do the doable” and keep the goal focused. That is understandable. But OMB should begin preparing a phase two for 2019, expanding the focus to include supporting high-value work by state and local partners.

Keeping the focus narrowly on federal agencies is a bit like only brushing half your teeth: It’s better than nothing, but not very effective. This administration has the chance to catalyze high-value work at all levels of government, and it should seize that opportunity.  

Andrew Feldman is a director in the public sector practice at Grant Thornton. He was previously a special adviser on the evidence team at the White House Office of Management and Budget and, prior to that, served in Wisconsin state government.  

Kathy Stack is an independent consultant. She served for more than 30 years in the federal government, including 28 years at the White House Office of Management and Budget.