A new prez takes on the bureaucracy

For President Ronald Reagan it was a Hawaiian surgeon who owned several properties but didn’t pay back his student loan. For President Bill Clinton it was a purported $436 hammer. For President Barack Obama it was salmon regulated by different agencies depending whether they lived in salt or fresh water, or when they’re smoked (the salmon, not the agencies).

Every president cites some anecdote to prove the big picture, namely that until the voters chose me, the government limped along like a giant, shambling, eyeless blob, bloated and inefficient. They all launched examinations of the federal government, promising to make it more efficient, accountable, or responsive to citizens. In that sense, President Donald Trump’s executive order for reorganizing the government has plenty of precedent.

The past efforts promised far more than they delivered. But that didn’t make them worthless. Reagan’s “Reform 88”, led by then-deputy OMB director Joe Wright, noted that agencies operated at least 325 separate financial management systems. Sound familiar? In the ensuing years, the government has spent around $2 trillion on information technology. It hasn’t totally gotten its money’s worth, so the government still has redundant back-office systems and too many data centers, but can you imagine trying to operate today with typing pools, carbon paper, adding machines and punch-card tabulators?

Clinton, Bush and Obama had detailed management plans. For Clinton, it was the National Performance Review. That effort sought to modernize, streamline, simplify. It had the virtue of getting civil servants really excited, even a few contracting officers. Bush’s President’s Management Agenda brought red-yellow-green scorecards for program performance. It called for lists of federal activities that agencies could outsource. Obama emphasized IT rationalization through cloud computing and a slew of related initiatives. It ruled out most outsourcing.

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All these efforts left worthy residue.

Now Trump is asking the bureaucracy to look for ways to outsource, share services, consolidate duplicative functions, even nominate whole agencies for closure. Many of these things have been asked before, just not quite in this way. Prior presidents had large cadres of people who really wanted to work in government follow them into office. They quickly inhabited the agencies and White House offices, writing detailed plans and pulling in civil servants.

Trump is a little different. His stated objective is for a government to do less. He’s imposed a regulatory budget. He’s rescinded a major water regulatory initiative at the EPA. An air initiative could come next. In his inauguration speech, Trump promised a return to greater classic federalism, meaning more authorities to state governments.

As a result, we’re not seeing, at least not yet, large numbers of policy-loving government functionaries flocking to the administration the way we did in earlier transitions. That’s one reason the executive order will likely be an uphill push.

Another reason: Earlier executive orders and management plans didn’t explicitly ask agencies to identify which of themselves should be partially or completely closed. Only an outsider appointed to the task of terminating an agency would stand up and propose that — and even then somebody in Congress would step in.

The White House might have missed an opportunity in the executive order by leaving out reference to the Government Accountability Office’s list of duplicative federal programs. In fact, GAO has hundreds of reports citing duplicated activities that, if consolidated, could save many billions of dollars. Going after those would provide an objective reference point that not even Congress could argue with.

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