The White House's fiscal 2021 budget request arrives at the House Budget Committee.

The White House's fiscal 2021 budget request arrives at the House Budget Committee. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Trump Pushes Significant Federal Hiring and Firing Reforms in 2021 Budget

Changes will help employees at agencies looking to make cuts have "the best shot of being part of our workforce going forward," White House official says.

President Trump proposed significant changes to how federal employees are hired and fired in his fiscal 2021 budget, pushing both administrative reforms and legislative overhauls to update a civil service system his administration called “lengthy and byzantine.” 

The White House praised the federal workforce in the blueprint document released Monday, while also suggesting most agencies are in the process of identifying redundant employees to remove. It said federal employees accomplish vital services on behalf of the American people in spite of a personnel system that holds them back and fails to provide incentives for workers to do their best.  

“The underlying framework of the General Schedule,” the administration said, “has proven to be neither nimble nor agile. Its job classification system becomes more archaic with each passing year.” The budget request added it was surprising the federal workforce is as productive as it is: “Considering these factors, it is remarkable that so many federal workers continue to pursue and attain excellence.”

One pillar of Trump’s reforms will focus on dismissing poorly performing and misbehaving federal workers more quickly. The president issued an executive order to accomplish that in 2017, but it was largely held up during a legal battle in which a federal judge initially ruled it unconstitutional. An appeals court lifted that injunction, however, and the administration said the Office of Personnel Management will issue regulations to implement the order this year. It proposed initial rules for some of the reforms last year. 

While the budget laid out a litany of tasks for OPM to carry out in the coming fiscal year, it also assumed the agency will no longer exist. The administration said the General Services Administration and the Executive Office of the President would assume all of OPM’s employees—a reorganization it first pitched in 2018—despite Congress last year blocking the shift from moving forward. Margaret Weichert, the Office of Management and Budget’s deputy director for management, told reporters on Monday the White House included the proposal in its budget “fully understanding” the congressional roadblocks it faces and will “in no way, shape or form” violate the legislative language. 

The White House said that unlike previous years, it was not proposing specific staffing targets for federal agencies. Still, it provided estimates for each agency’s workforce in fiscal 2021. Overall, the administration expects agencies to shed nearly 34,000 employees, though that figure is driven primarily by the 53,500 temporary workers the Census Bureau will unload after its decennial count. Also unlike some recent years, the administration expects most Cabinet-level agencies will see staffing increases in fiscal 2021. 

To help them reach those targets, the White House is tasking agencies with involving subject matter experts more in the hiring and candidate interview process. OPM and OMB created a pilot program for two agencies to implement the hiring changes in 2019 and will look to expand that to six agencies in 2020. The administration said it will issue guidance and templates this year with the goal of eventually expanding the initiative across government. 

As he did last year, Trump requested legislative reforms to help agencies hire more qualified experts on a temporary basis, create an “industry exchange” to allow nonprofit workers and academics to cycle through government, expand agencies’ capacities for temporary workers and change qualification requirements. On qualifications, the administration promised reform on educational achievement requirements agencies place on certain jobs. 

“The administration intends to eliminate degree requirements for federal jobs when not inherently necessary to perform the duties of a position, and to identify other instances where degrees are used as a poor proxy for specific competencies sought in job candidates,” it wrote in the budget. “Over-reliance on degrees can be a barrier to entry into federal service, and it can also prevent current civil servants who possess relevant skills, training or experience from transitioning into emerging fields within the federal sector.”

Due to the evolving nature of the needs of federal agencies and the constituencies they serve, the White House said, some feds may soon find themselves in obsolete jobs and subsequently out of work. 

“Agencies continue to examine their workforces to determine the functions needed to accomplish their missions in light of technological changes that automate transactional  processes, such as artificial intelligence to streamline compliance and regulatory processes, online and telephone chat-bots to improve customer service, and other tools to reduce agency personnel needs,” it said. 

The administration laid out an ambitious plan to ensure the relevance of those workers, proposing to “reskill” 400,000 federal employees. The bulk of the funding for that initiative would come from individual agencies, Weichert told reporters on Monday, with only pilot programs being initiated on a governmentwide basis. The training will focus on areas with skills gap in the federal and American workforces, such as cybersecurity and data analytics. The administration hoped to be “showcasing the art of the possible,” Weichert said of the aggressive push, and will require agencies like OPM, OMB and GSA to work together. 

She promised to work with federal employee unions to “ensure our existing employees have the best shot of being part of our workforce going forward.”