Former agency execs weigh ‘serious’ reorg recommendations

Could a BRAC be in the future for civilian agencies?

It’s not out of the question, but Robert Shea, a former Office of Management and Budget executive under the President George W. Bush administration, said chances are slim Congress would give the go-ahead on a proposal that would relinquish some of its power during a government overhaul.

He would know. He drew up a similar proposal when he was at OMB, and while it might not be the choice of action, the suggestion reveals the range of ideas swirling around federal reform.

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“Modeled on the [Defense Base Closure and Realignment] BRAC Commission, where you would submit a proposal that was considered under expedited procedures by the Congress,” said Shea, now a principal with Grant Thornton, during an Aug. 15 reorganization panel at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. “Those authorizing committees will be reluctant to relinquish that kind of decision-making to a broad oversight committee. We’ll see in February with the president’s budget, you’ll have some of the most ambitious reorganization proposals we’ve seen in a long, long time, submitted to Congress. I don’t think Congress is prepared for those because there’s a lot on its plate. We’ll see just what kind of progress Congress can make on those kinds of things without that kind of authority. In the absence of it, I’m not optimistic we’ll get a lot of progress.”

Shea’s suggestion was just one of many offered during the Heritage panel, where the foundation doubled down on the more than 100 recommendations it’s made for the executive branch, on how it can make the federal government more efficient and effective.

Though agencies’ final reform plans are due to OMB by September as part of the 2019 budget proposal, agencies will still need to think about how they will more specifically address their respective reform plans between now and the spring, when both the 2019 budget is published, and OMB presents a final plan to President Donald Trump for agency restructuring and reorganization no later than March 2018.

Donald Devine, former Office of Personnel Management director under President Ronald Reagan, said what he learned when it comes to reforming government, is go right to the agencies to get the job done.

“Just send these [recommendations] out to the agencies, tell them to do it, or if you don’t like it, have a good reason why you don’t do it,” Devine said. “These are serious recommendations. If we just turn it over to the careerists at OMB … this will go on for a year, two years, and we’ll come out at the end with some halfway done thing.”

Heritage in the past nine months released four “Blueprint” reports, including most recently reports related to the reorganization: An Analysis of Federal Departments and Agencies and Pathways to Reform and Cross-Cutting Issues.

Rachel Greszler, a Heritage research fellow in economics, budget and entitlements, explained that with $4 trillion in annual spending, and 22 different cabinet-level agencies, “Americans are in need of a governmentwide reorganization.”

“The government currently knows few bounds both fiscally and just administratively,” Greszler said. “We need government to focus on its core constitutional responsibilities. We also need a government that is looking out for the interest of everybody, instead of select groups, and we need one that’s able to provide efficient services with accountability metrics attached to those.”

The Heritage recommendations include actions like eliminating agencies such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Federal Housing Administration, and shifting core functions of eliminated agencies to more appropriate components.

Other functions considered non-federal, such as fire protection and low-income housing assistance, would be shifted to the state and local government level, Greszler said.

Other recommendations include consolidating offices within departments and agencies, such as the Veterans Affairs Department’s 14 health-related offices, or closing 24 regional field offices within the Education Department.

“Not everything that’s in here is something that the executive department has the authority to take on and go do immediately,” Greszler said. “A lot of the things, probably most of them, will require buy-in from Congress.”

Perseverance and progress

Congressional support was one thing the panelists agreed the executive branch needs if it wants to truly reform the government, and they also agreed that collaboration and perseverance were two qualities agencies required as they implemented reform plans.

“Agencies aren’t really enthusiastic about giving up programs, funding, power to another, but you can get it done,” Shea said. “It’s easier to get it done within the executive branch than it is outside. But if you don’t plow ground on the Hill and among other stakeholders, it will be very difficult to get these things enacted.”

Shea also said actions like consolidating programs take time and often several tries before getting the desired effect. Just because a law created the Homeland Security Department, its inaction didn’t mean the country’s immediate security.

“Just because you consolidate programs … that’s really the beginning of the journey,” Shea said. “You’ve got to make sure that these consolidated entities assume a singular culture, a focused mission, and that you’re measuring progress over time to ensure that what you’ve tried to do —being more efficient, effective — is actually working.”

Shea said it’s also necessary for agencies to think about outcomes.

“It’s too easy to come to work and satisfy yourself with just producing inputs or outputs, working really hard, doing activity, presumably toward an outcome,” Shea said. “But if you don’t measure whether that’s having an impact on that ultimate outcome, you’ll never know whether or not what you’re doing is having a positive result.”

Hiring and firing

Another factor the executive branch needs to seriously consider as reform plans take root, is the federal workforce and hiring and firing systems.

Greszler pointed out some of Heritage’s recommendations, such as extending probationary terms from one year to three years, and requiring managers to institute performance improvement plans for employees they want to fire, rather than for employees who won’t receive fully successful performance grades.

Greszler also suggested limiting the appeals process for employees from three different venues to giving them one avenue of their choice.

Shea said he didn’t think the government workforce is equipped to do what’s being asked of it, thanks in part to the slow hiring process and competition with the private sector.

“In my view, the reorganization is important,” Shea said, “but there’s no more important priority than civil service reform.”