Only in Washington would the anniversary of a management report be reason to celebrate.
Did someone say “get a life”?
A year ago this week, the Trump administration released the President’s Management Agenda. To mark the anniversary, good-government types were in full forum mode — the preferred form of celebration for policy wonks.
On Wednesday, the anniversary started with a Volcker Alliance session on its effort to build stronger connections between government and universities. While not formally linked to the management agenda, it’s close enough that Margaret Weichert, who crafted the plan, spent much of her talk there on it — with props.
She waved an update of the agenda, which she dubbed “the one-year anniversary commemorative edition of the PMA, one year of progress,” and gave Tom Ross, the Volcker Alliance president, “a limited edition, one-year anniversary PMA coin.”
Later that morning, she spoke at a National Academy of Public Administration program devoted to “Perspectives on the President’s Management Agenda,” which also is the name of a NAPA book released at the event. Before the panel discussions began, a birthday candle was lit on a cupcake to mark the occasion. Despite a suggestion to sing happy birthday, no one did, perhaps concerned that that would be a data point too far.
Afterward, the two-hatted Weichert, the deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget and the acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, held a press briefing about the agenda. The next day, she met with several of the same reporters to mark the anniversary with interviews.
Why all this in a city that overflows with management reports and agendas?
“For us, it’s positive to see the integration of a workable agenda with real progress and the continuation of enablers reflected in the president’s budget submission,” said Teresa Gerton, NAPA’s president and chief executive. “That’s good-government action worth celebrating.”
Actually, federal employees practice good government every day, much of it unnoticed, let alone celebrated.
So why is the President’s Management Agenda worth celebrating?
Not everyone thinks it is.
The “Celebrating One Year of Progress” report says: “One year later, agencies have made huge strides in implementing key PMA initiatives … to improve performance across the Government. Three drivers — IT, Data, and Workforce — are critical to this change.”
It provides these examples:
• Information technology: “The Technology Modernization Fund has approved seven projects in five agencies totaling nearly $90 million to modernize legacy technology by adopting commercial solutions and enhancing cybersecurity.”
• Data: This “first leg of a multi-year strategy … will fundamentally transform how data gets used and managed. This strategy will support improving public services, fueling learning and innovation in the community, and building public trust.”
• Workforce: OPM “created new direct hire authorities for Scientific, Technical, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) and cybersecurity workers. Hiring top talent in these fields is vital to long-term security and national competitiveness.”
The problem with self-laudatory reports is what they don’t report. This one accentuates the positive and ignores the negative. It cites a 6.8 percent increase in the Secret Service Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey employee engagement score and a 2 percent increase at the Energy Department.
But it says nothing about the stark, overall drop in engagement, as documented in the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government report, which draws on the survey. Released in December by the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service and the Boston Consulting Group, Best Places “found employee engagement declined at 59.1 percent of federal organizations included in the rankings, while only 39.6 percent registered increases.” In the previous three years, more than 70 percent of federal agencies improved.
A troubling issue mentioned throughout the report is the lack of trust in the federal government, which “continues to decline, sitting at near-historic lows.”
Donald F. Kettl, a public affairs professor at the University of Texas at Austin and academic director of its Washington Center, praised the agenda for addressing the problem of trust in government, without being a government naysayer.
“Most of the fierce rhetoric swirling around Washington is profoundly anti-government. It’s devoted to the proposition that government doesn’t perform well and that its performance can’t be improved,” he said. “The PMA has, as its basic foundation, the proposition that government performance can be improved, and that information, technology and human capital are the foundations. That’s an important and profound notion, I believe.”
As the report deals with falling trust in government, however, the administration’s efforts to boost government performance are hindered by the lack of trust that federal workers unions have in the administration.
Plans to freeze pay, cut retirement benefits, weaken workplace due-process procedures and enfeeble government labor organizations give union leaders and their members no reason to trust the Trump administration. Implementing his management agenda, at least those parts where there could be common ground, will be much more difficult, if not impossible, without broad federal employee support.
That lack of trust was summed up when National Treasury Employees Union President Tony Reardon told Congress in May: “While the PMA’s stated goal is to effectively and efficiently achieve agency missions and improve service to America through enhanced alignment and strategic management of the federal workforce, the proposals to accomplish this goal are, in reality, an all-out assault on the pay, benefits and rights of federal workers.”
All-out assaults don’t build trust.