Federal employees and their advocates reacted skeptically Monday to the establishment of a new White House campaign to overhaul the federal bureaucracy using private-sector practices, warning that the approach is too simplistic to have long-lasting effects.
Government workers and those who have recently left federal jobs said the new White House Office of American Innovation — led by Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser — has a worthwhile mission to make a bureaucracy long known for inefficiency more nimble and less costly.
But these employees doubt that valuable ideas can come from yet another White House task force with the goal of fixing government. They said they worry this initiative will lean exclusively on the corporate world for ideas rather than inviting experts inside government to share theirs. And these employees suggested that the real aim was to farm out work to private companies, costing taxpayers the same — or even more — than keeping it in-house.
The new office is envisioned as a White House power center staffed with consultants and former business executives who put a particular emphasis on using technology to help transform the government of 2.1 million civilian employees.
“The first thing I’m hearing is, this is reinventing government version two, or three, or four,” said Bill Valdez, president of the Senior Executives Association and a longtime Energy Department official, referring to similar “SWAT” teams set up by the Clinton, Bush and Obama White Houses to make government operate more like a business.
Valdez said he is optimistic that Trump’s “real chops” in business and Kushner’s “energy” might lead to good ideas, and he wrote a letter to Kushner on Monday “offering the help of the SES as they go about their journey.”
But Valdez cautioned that the Trump innovators may not realize that government has many rules dating back to the dawn of the civil service in 1883 that will make it harder to bring private-sector practices to government.
For one thing, political appointees in the government might be surprised if they seek to hire friends or business associates who they consider the best candidates for jobs. “In general, the rules about nepotism are unfamiliar to people who join the federal government from the private sector, where you can hire whomever you want,” Valdez said.
The sprawling and troubled veterans’ care system is expected to be among the first targets of the innovation office, which was first disclosed by The Washington Post. That focus alarms some critics of the new office, who fear the recommendation will be a push for more private care outside the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“I’m very concerned that this ‘reimagining’ effort is another name for dismantling VA,” said Marilyn Park, legislative representative on VA issues for the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union.
The agency still is recovering from a scandal over staff coverups of long patient wait lists for doctors’ appointments and struggling with a backlog of appeals when veterans are denied claims for benefits. President Trump promised during his campaign to give veterans more access to doctors outside the system, a change unions and some veterans groups have denounced as the first step toward privatization.
Some VA employees said they welcome more attention from the White House after years of questions about proper oversight of the decentralized system of hospitals and clinics.
“The more people looking at VA, the better for the veterans,” said Joseph Colon, a health systems specialist in the office that is in charge of credentials for the medical staff at the VA Caribbean Health Care System in Puerto Rico. “There’s a lot of poor decisions made at the local level.”
Other employees said they don’t trust the administration to steer clear of possible conflicts of interest when engaging private companies to help make government work better.
“We’re concerned this administration may cherry-pick certain government functions that could be personally beneficial to their supporters,” said Steven Lenkart, executive director of the National Federation of Federal Employees, which represents 110,000 blue- and white-collar workers. The union also is concerned that a “lopsided focus” on disabling offices that enforce environmental or labor regulations will come out of the office.
“The excuse will be, it’s for the efficiency of government,” Lenkart said.
At the Social Security Administration, budget cuts of 10 percent since 2010 and a surge in applications for disability benefits have resulted in a backlog of appeals for hearings when applications are rejected.
Witold Skwierczynski, president of AFGE’s National Council of Social Security field operations locals, said the innovation office might conclude that the appeals backlog — with an average 550-day wait for a hearing — could be whittled down if hearings were conducted on the Internet.
“You can’t do a disability hearing over the Internet,” he said.
Teresa Gerton, who served in the Obama administration as deputy assistant secretary for policy at the Labor Department, overseeing veterans employment and training, said it will be tempting for the new office to replace people with computers to save money.
“The thinking will be, if we can just automate services, customers will interact with government workers or all you need is a Web portal and you can find a job,” Gerton, now president of the National Academy of Public Administration, said. “But it’s not true. Not everyone is comfortable with the Internet, and people need in-person conversations before they’re ready to use electronic tools.”