When Mick Mulvaney described the Trump administration’s plan to remake the federal government, the tough, right-wing small government advocate, sounded like a middle-of-the-road resident.
“It’s not about big government, it’s not about small government,” the Office of Management and Budget director said, “it’s about good government.”
Yet, the memorandum he sent to agency heads Wednesday along with President Trump’s earlier budget proposal and reorganization executive order form a management agenda driven by the notion of a broken government needing sharp personnel and programs cuts, rather than using mission and service to determine the size government should be.
Mulvaney’s 14-page “Comprehensive Plan for Reforming the Federal Government and Reducing the Federal Civilian Workforce” would not, however, lead to the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” as White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon described Trump’s agenda.
“This is more of a reassessment of the administrative state than a deconstruction,” said Janice Lachance, director of the Office of Personnel Management in the Clinton administration.
If this reassessment is not deconstruction, it is heavy reduction. Experts differ on the potential importance of the plan.
Donald F. Kettl, a University of Maryland public policy professor, said, “This is a very big deal. It is the first part of an administrative strategy to drive a much larger downsizing.”
Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, praised Trump for giving high-level attention to management issues early in his term, calling the OMB plan “very important” and “unusually good.”
Barry Rabe, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy, said the document is “clearly driven by an agenda of reducing staffing,” while giving lip service to performance.
Robert D. Behn, a senior lecturer at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, scoffed at the “conventional bureaucratic thinking” in the memo. “Accomplishing something — anything — requires people,” he said. To improve performance, “the leadership team has to mobilize and motivate people — teams as well as individuals — to take the actions that are necessary to fix the performance deficits.”
Despite a 1.9 percent pay raise promised to federal workers next year, the plan will not mobilize and motivate staffers who are concerned about layoffs, especially after the document’s declaration about “too many federal employees stuck in a system that is not working for the American people.”
J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, fears that focusing on decreasing government workers will lead to increasing “costly and unaccountable contractors.” Added National Treasury Employees Union President Tony Reardon: “It’s a recipe for disaster.”
Efforts to cut the workforce overlook the steep fall in feds per capita. The nation’s population increased 67 percent during the past 50 years, while the workforce grew by only 10 percent, according to the Obama administration’s fiscal 2017 budget.
Trump’s plan to slice $54 billion from the domestic discretionary budget, while boosting spending for defense, homeland security and veterans, means many agencies would suffer sharp personnel reductions. For the 19 small agencies he wants to eliminate, services and staffing would drop to zero.
While the budget plan tells domestic agency officials how much they would have to cut if a skeptical Congress approves, section “D” of the reforming government and reducing workforce plan tells them how to do it. Another point deals with employee performance issues. That could affect civil service protections for federal employees.
The memo does say data should be used to determine “how many people are required to perform tasks at the level required.” That would be an objective, good-government approach to management if it were not subordinate to “develop a long-term workforce reduction plan” instructions.
Mulvaney asked agency officials to consider using lower-grade employees to do some work assigned to higher-grade positions, then reducing the number of higher-grade workers. The rank and file welcomes his wise instruction “to accomplish the work with the fewest amount of management layers needed,” while federal managers and senior executives might take that as a warning.
Point three in the workforce management section outlines a “plan to maximize employee performance” and reads like it came from a good government playbook.
The problem is not what it says, but what it ignores: civil service protections. The context is repeated Republican proposals threatening workplace due process rights that protect the public as much as individual workers.
No one opposes removing workers for misconduct or poor performance that does not improve. How is the challenge. The process can be much too long. But that might be the price to pay if an expedited – and fair—procedure can’t be found. Due process for Department of Veterans Affairs senior executives has already been emasculated to the point that protections approach hollowness. Republicans have pushed similar proposals for other employees. Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) has said his legislation allowing federal workers to be fired “for no reason at all” would be a tool for “Trump to use in draining the swamp” – a contemptuous description of the federal workforce.
“While there are always improvements to pursue in government regarding the workforce and its programs, pushing arbitrary cuts and ridiculous political ploys with no end game is a recipe for failure,” said Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees. “This is not a meaningful way to govern, and it is insulting to the hard-working people of the United States.”