Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Biden Is Moving ‘Full Speed’ on Management Priorities Despite Key Vacancies

While several top management positions still await confirmed nominees, it hasn’t slowed the administration’s agenda, a senior White House official says.

Despite vacancies in key management roles five months into the Biden administration, the White House is moving quickly to implement the president’s management priorities, according to a senior administration official. 

“The administration is already full speed ahead on implementing ambitious actions toward a more effective, equitable, and accountable government that delivers results for all Americans,” said Jason Miller, deputy director of management at the Office of Management and Budget, said in a statement to Government Executive. “The president has taken important actions to center equity across work of the federal government; empower, rebuild, and protect the federal workforce; and leverage federal acquisition as a catalyst for building back better, addressing climate change, and ensuring that the future is made in America by all of America’s workers.” 

Miller, who was confirmed on April 27, added that OMB, through the President’s Management Council, is developing a process to frame and implement a management agenda “that will communicate, organize, and prioritize management efforts across the entirety of the federal government to drive further results against these goals and beyond,” he said. 

The White House has outlined what to expect from its management agenda in various executive orders and the president's fiscal 2022 budget proposal, which said the administration is “recommitting to good government” through re-empowering the federal workforce and bolstering agencies’ capacity to serve Americans. 

Pam Coleman, associate director for performance and personnel management at the Office of Management and Budget, also illuminated some of the administration’s management and workforce priorities during a virtual event for the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association on June 22

“Together with our partners at the Office of Personnel Management, I’ve been charged with delivering on the president’s promise to support, protect and empower the workforce and to rebuild teams and agencies guided by principles of equity and which reflect the diversity of our country, all while ensuring we continue to meet the needs of American people,” she said. “Government is not some monolith, but a collection of dedicated people, passionate individuals doing the work of the people and for the people.” 

Nonetheless, the White House lacks a number of key top management officials who have only just been confirmed by the Senate this week or have not been nominated by the president. As of June 23: 

  • The Office of Management and Budget is without a permanent director. After Neera Tanden withdrew her nomination on March 2, the administration has yet to nominate another director. (OMB Deputy Director Shalanda Young has been acting director since she was confirmed on March 23 for the deputy role.)
  • General Services Administration nominee Robin Carnahan was confirmed on June 23.
  • There is no nominee to lead the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (a division of OMB). 
  • There is no nominee to lead the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. 
  • Office of Personnel Management Director Nominee Kiran Ahuja was confirmed in a close vote on June 22 after Senate Republicans placed a hold on her nomination over her support of abortion rights and past focus on “critical race theory”

Of the 795 positions that require Senate confirmation that The Washington Post and nonprofit Partnership for Public Service are tracking, 70 have been confirmed, 149 are being considered by the Senate, 21 are awaiting formal nomination and 316 have no nominee, as of June 23. There are also 240 appointees who are either serving in termed positions or are holdovers from the previous administration. 

While the Senate got off to a slow start in taking up Biden’s nominations—the Senate runoff elections in Georgia in January, impeachment proceedings and prioritization of passage of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan all delayed normal business—Biden is the only president in recent history to not have an OMB director by inauguration or shortly thereafter. However, when looking at the confirmation rates of nominees for the top management roles mentioned above during the administrations of Presidents Clinton through Trump, Biden is not an outlier in lacking such leaders this early in his presidency. 

Management Concerns 

Sally Katzen, an NYU Law School professor who served as OIRA administrator and OMB deputy director for management during the Clinton administration, said she thinks the Biden administration is “on the right path” in developing its management philosophy, but the lack of confirmed leaders is an issue. However, she said that acting OMB Director Shalanda Young is “fabulous” and she doesn’t have any “fears that there is a deficit at OMB because there isn’t a director.” 

“Over the previous administration an enormous amount of unfortunate decisions were made and it takes time to undo them,” said Katzen. “I am convinced that Biden and his people are hard at work, but it does take time.”

Alan Balutis, who has held many senior roles in government and the private sector, applauded the White House for pointing to the need for civil service reform and procurement reform in its first budget submission. 

But Balutis said he is somewhat concerned about the lack of permanent officials in senior management positions, as the administration has “ambitious, aggressive initiatives” and is working to restore the “integrity of the civil service,” he said, although he noted approvingly that Biden has already appointed a federal chief information officer

“I think it’s the common view that if you’re in an acting role you don’t want to be the one to take the kind of aggressive, cutting edge action,” he said. “You really need a confirmed appointee in place to really lead and guide [agencies].” 

Presidents at least since the 1970s have had management agendas, even if they weren’t titled as such, noted Dan Chenok, executive director of the IBM Center for The Business of Government, in a piece for Government Executive. The first official presidential management agenda was released in August under the George W. Bush administration. 

The Obama administration showcased its early management priorities through its fiscal 2010 budget proposal and a memo on his “accountable government initiative” in September 2010. The Trump administration also signaled such priorities in its first budget proposal in 2017 and then published a management agenda in March 2018, the federal website that describes management priorities and provides progress updates, currently says “reporting on is being paused while the Biden administration establishes new goals, priorities, and a management agenda.” 

“The expectation that a new president coming in would have an agenda early is idealistic,” said John Kamensky, emeritus fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government who previously served as deputy director of Vice President Al Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government during the Clinton administration and OMB special assistant and assistant director at the Government Accountability Office.

Like the Obama administration in 2009, the Biden administration also prioritized implementing a massive rescue plan, he said. Based on what he’s seen so far, Kamensky said he is “cautiously excited” about Biden’s plans but noted that it will be crucial to have top officials in place to execute them. 

Regulation Outlook

The White House released its first regulatory agenda on June 11, which “continues rolling back the obstacles to recovery, equity, and sustainability that the prior administration put in place, such as making it significantly harder for families to challenge discriminatory housing practices and emboldening corporate polluters as they continued to harm people and communities,” wrote Sharon Block, acting administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

The agenda “appears to reflect the Biden administration’s understanding that regulation is a key avenue to advance policies that make our government work for the American people and not corporate special interests,” said Amit Narang, regulatory policy advocate for the nonprofit Public Citizen, in a statement. “Congressional gridlock due to Republican obstruction underscores the importance of protecting the public through regulation.”

Stephanie Kostro, executive vice president for policy at the trade association Professional Services Council, which represents federal contractors, told Federal News Network on June 15 that because the administration is seeking achieve its goals through the regulatory process, contractors need to monitor proposed changes very carefully and provide comments within the comment period. 

However, there is “tension” within the Democratic party about the role of OIRA, said Katzen. “If you had a confirmed OMB director, I think it would be easier to resolve this, but everything in due course.”

Progressives typically want to limit OIRA’s use of cost benefit analysis in the rulemaking process. In this procedure, “small government ideologues and corporate interests have fashioned a powerful weapon for attacking regulatory safeguards and undercutting landmark laws,” according to James Goodwin, senior policy analyst at the Center for Progressive Reform. 

“The long delay in nominating an OIRA administrator is not an encouraging sign,” said John Graham, who served as OIRA administrator under President George W. Bush and now is a professor at Indiana University. “With the August recess ahead, a new administrator—even if nominated now—won’t be operational until the fall at the earliest. There is so much pent-up demand for regulation that the Biden administration needs a wise OIRA to help distinguish the gems from the dogs.” 

Contracting Priorities 

The Biden administration has been working to use federal contracting and procurement mechanisms to advance its goals of supporting underserved communities, advancing racial equity, fighting climate change and supporting American manufacturing.

The administration outlined its priorities in its fiscal 2022 budget preview and then elaborated on them in the full budget request

Balutis wrote in Meritalk on May 28 that the president’s goal to create a “modern and diverse federal acquisition system” comes after the “almost 200 studies and procurement reform commissions that have been conducted over the last 30-plus years to do this very thing.” 

Despite praise from some liberals and progressives, others are concerned about the administration's approach to procurement. 

“Most procurement experts believe that the main priority for the procurement system should be to get a good deal for the government and the taxpayer in terms of price and quality,” a former senior procurement official told Government Executive. “The most forward-looking procurement experts also would like to see more use of innovative techniques for buying on the part of the government.” 

The former official continued: “Unfortunately, none of the little the administration has said so far on procurement has involved those central issues. Instead, the only comments have been about more use of Buy American and more emphasis on this on socio-economic considerations in contracting. Both of these priorities could raise the cost of what the government buys, such as through more expensive American made products. And there have been no words so far endorsing use of innovative techniques in buying.”