Here’s how agencies are getting ready for the June 30 reorganization deadline

When the Office of Management and Budget first detailed its plan to reorganize government, the Trump administration compared restructuring with “draining the swamp.”

The memo didn’t detail  specific agency reductions or cuts. But some federal employees and management experts said OMB should do more to inspire the federal workforce. Government reorganization should prompt employees to find new ways to better meet their missions — not instill fear in them about the prospect about personnel cuts, they said.

This is the message that four agencies, including the departments of agriculture, commerce, homeland security and justice, say they’re trying to send to the workforce.

Career leaders from these agencies briefed the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management on the initial steps they’ve taken to develop plans for reorganizing government and restructuring the federal workforce.

“What we’ve talked about with the secretary and the people around the secretary, is to not make the discussions we’re having on reform about cutting offices or people,” Don Bice, associate director of USDA’s Office of Budget and Program Analysis, told the subcommittee during a June 15 hearing. “It’s more about how we’re serving the customer. Are we serving them in the right way? Are we in the right locations? Are we meeting the needs out there? Most of our discussions have been about how can we make sure that the customers are served in a better way. I’d include employees in that equation.”

Agency leaders said they didn’t see the government reform initiative as an imperative — but more of an opportunity under tight budgetary constraints.

“We do recognize that we need to make some tough choices,” Michael Stough, director of the program analysis and evaluation division for the Homeland Security Department’s Office of the Chief Financial Officer.  “[With] the priorities for hardening the border, immigration enforcement, all of the other activities that we have to undertake, we have to balance risk across the entire enterprise. It’s incumbent upon us as we look at each of the areas as we’ve gone through this … to figure out if there are areas where we can have complementary efforts that actually will allow us to use our resources more effectively.”

The hearing didn’t have high attendance from senators, but the subcommittee’s leadership, Chairman James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Ranking Member Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) had plenty both routine and more complex questions for the agencies.

All four agencies that testified Thursday said they expect to meet the June 30 deadline to submit draft agency reform plans to OMB.

And they all seemed happy with OMB’s role so far in the process. The Trump administration received more than 100,000 comments from the public on ways to make government more efficient and responsive to citizens’ needs. The formal public comment period ended June 12.

The Commerce Department received more than 5,000 comments from the public through OMB’s web portal.

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“We are … de-duplicating comments that are repeated and getting down to a manageable number that is then being evaluated in my office, first, for whether it’s a specific bureau that needs to look at it and respond, or whether it’s a more general, department-wide comment,” Ellen Herbst, chief financial officer and assistant secretary for administration at Commerce, said. “It has worked.”

Commerce’s management council is meeting and soliciting comments from each of the department’s operating units.

Herbst said Commerce is also meeting with its labor-management forum. She said the department agreed to brief the forum on its planning efforts and will collectively work through the comments and later the recommendations with labor leaders.

Justice has received more than 6,700 comments from the public. The department is reviewing them and selecting applicable ideas to add to an inventory of the best suggestions.

“Each of those 40 components of the Department of Justice is also working with the management and staff of those components to get ideas at every level,” Lee Lofthus, assistant attorney general for administration at DoJ, said. “We’ve emphasized very distinctly at the department that the ideas can come from management, they can come from leadership, they can come from every employee in a component. We’re not trying to only engage a segment of the workforce. We want everyone involved.”

DHS developed a feedback questionnaire and posted it on the department’s intranet to solicit ideas from its employees. It got about 2,400 comments from employees, Stough said.

DHS Deputy Secretary Elaine Duke also went on a listening tour to hear from front-line employees and management at every component.

Stough said he believes this effort is helping DHS address consistently low morale among the department’s employees.

“We really think this is the first step,” Stough said. “That’s why we’re excited about this effort. Obviously we’re having to assess and distill it and roll through it now, but we got plenty of frank comments from folks out in the field that said, ‘Here are areas where we think you need to take a look at.'”

DHS also received more than 55,000 comments from the public.

The department has a team that reviews all the suggestions on a daily basis. From those comments, it developed a list of about 45 issues or themes that DHS will focus on as it writes a draft reform plan.

The senators were generally pleased that the agencies had solicited feedback from their employees but hoped more workers would have contributed their ideas. Both Lankford and Heitkamp agreed the feedback numbers seem impressive but aren’t as large as a percentage of the overall workforce.

“This may seem like a big number, but I think some of them have just thrown up their hands and [said], ‘We’ll never change anyway,'” Heitkamp said. “How do we combat that, ‘here we go again, another attempt to try and make us happy’ [mindset]. Nothing ever changes, so we’re not going to participate.”

Heitkamp is particularly concerned about the message workforce restructuring sends to federal employees, particularly given the high number of workers who are eligible for retirement by the end of 2017.

“This exercise has to be done not solely as an exercise of efficiency, it has to be done as an exercise in reaffirmation of the mission and the goals,” she said. “I hope in your analysis, what you’re thinking about is how you reaffirm how your mission will be established and your mission will be advanced in light of these efficiencies. Because if you demoralize, if you devalue your workforce, they’ll vote with their feet.”

OMB earned praise from the departmental leaders, who said the agency had been responsive to their questions and concerns.

“They have been incredibly supportive in this effort,” Herbst said. “The message, at least that we’ve received over and over again, is it’s on us — because we know our missions — to propose things that are mission-specific and support the mission. There has been no across-the-board edict or anything like that. In addition, OMB and OPM have met with us multiple times to help answer questions on the guidance, to ask if they can do anything to help.”

Heitkamp said the subcommittee would continuously examine agencies’ reform plans; they’ll have more questions for them in the future.

“This is not a ‘check-a-box’ for us,” she said. “To us, this is absolutely critical in meeting a 21st century federal workforce and federal agencies fulfilling their missions. This is just our [introduction]. You will see us over and over and over again.

Lankford told Federal News Radio he planned to bring in OMB next to discuss its plans for the government reorganization.