White House taps old policies for new government makeover

New guidance from OMB advises agencies to use shared services, GWACs and federal schedules for acquisition, and to leverage IT wherever possible in restructuring plans.

OMB chief Mick Mulvaney, shown here in as a member of Congress in 2013. (Photo credit Gage Skidmore/Flickr)
 

OMB chief Mick Mulvaney, shown here in as a member of Congress in 2013. (Photo credit Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

The White House plan to restructure the federal government involves a rethinking of government activities and potentially a major downsizing of the federal workforce. But it also looks to leverage existing IT, acquisition and shared services in agency reform plans.

The new guidance issued by the Office of Management and Budget on April 12, ends the 90-day-old federal hiring freeze, but it also puts a timeline in place for federal agencies to come up with plans to streamline their operations and make them more efficient.

In an April 11 press conference announcing the guidance, OMB Director Mick Mulvaney said it is an effort to fulfill the president's campaign promise to "drain the swamp" in Washington.

The guidance pushes for some of the same agency IT and service proficiency programs that had been part of the Obama administration's efforts to tame government redundancies and inefficiencies.

Tony Scott, former Obama administration CIO, told FCW in an email that the guidance "seems to pick up on many of the same themes as we worked on earlier, especially around greater use of shared services, and modernizing legacy systems and processes."

The plan does away with FedStat and strategic reviews, he said, adding he was "sorry to see" them go, as he found them useful in talking with senior federal executives at "in a very thoughtful and useful way."

The OMB guidance, also glides over a big governmental issue, according to Scott.

"One of the problems with this approach is that it presumes most of the issues can be solved by doing things differently at agencies, or by having higher performing federal employees, and seems ignore the obvious questions about where law, legislative, and governance processes can be changed to also improve outcomes," Scott said.

The OMB guidance stresses IT, shared services, governmentwide acquisition contracts and even contractor-provided as-a-service offerings as important tools agencies should consider in their restructuring plans.

Terry Gerton, president of the National Academy of Public Administration, was optimistic about much of the guidance, but she cautioned that migrations to shared services must be carefully managed.

"If you're not careful, those shared-services organizations get separated from the mission part of the organization," she said, adding that without a strong provider-customer relationship, program offices are liable to rebuild those shared functions on their own.

A bigger issue, Gerton said, is that program efficiencies "are not going to get you trillions of dollars in savings."

In developing those plans, the White House said agencies should consider ways to "better leverage technology" and to use intra-and inter-agency shared services/centers of expertise. It also recommends using shared IT infrastructure and external service providers, including providers on best-in-class contracts as part of the category management effort.

Agencies should consider GWACs and federal supply schedules, it said, for common goods and services to save money, avoid wasteful and redundant contracting actions and free-up acquisition staff to accelerate procurements for high-priority mission work.

"SEWP does not see this so much as a sea change as a continuation of a trend we have been focused on, especially over the past two years," said Joanne Woytek, program manager for NASA's Solutions for Enterprise-Wide Procurement contract vehicle, in an email to FCW. She said SEWP has been proactively working with agency CIOs and chief acquisition officers for some time, rather than "being a passive framework for acquisitions."

"As noted in the memo, contract vehicles such as SEWP can provide agencies with an important tool in their acquisition planning to effectively deal with increased demand with fewer resources," she said.

Additionally, the guidance said agencies should control spending by better managing demand and consumption, consolidating IT infrastructure requirements, purchasing standard configurations for common requirements, participating in volume buying events and applying best commercial buying practices.

Many of the recommendations in the new OMB guidance were fostered during the Obama administration through the General Services Administration's category management efforts, including the category hallways.

GSA, which would to be a focal point for such common acquisition and strategic purchasing efforts under the guidance, declined immediate comment.

Mulvaney's document was greeted with a mix of optimism and trepidation by unions and other organizations representing federal employees and managers.

"This memorandum is a huge opportunity for our country," said Bill Valdez, president of the Senior Executives Association. "It will cause us all to ask the tough but important questions about exactly what we want government doing, and how we should structure government to best accomplish those missions."

David Cox, National President of the American Federation of Government Employees praised the idea of "re-inventing government" in an April 12 statement, but he said using contractors extensively to do it was a "terrible idea" that would outsource government jobs to "costly and unaccountable contractors."

"The federal government already spends twice as much annually on service contractors as it does on its own workforce," Cox said. "Nobody knows precisely what these contractors do, how well they do it, who they're hiring, or where they're working,"

Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union called the guidance "little more than opening the door to increased contracting out of agency functions and services," at the expense of federal workers who are being squeezed out by shrinking budgets.

"Requiring government agencies to draft detailed plans for downsizing based on a budget that has yet to be released, let alone gone through the congressional appropriations process, is a wasteful exercise," Reardon said.

Federal executives are going to have to do a tricky dance between answering the call of the White House order while also waiting to see how Congress responds to the full 2018 budget submission, due out in May.

"Savvy, experienced managers are going to earn their keep responding to this and all the other balls that are in the air," said Robert Shea, principal at Grant Thornton and formerly associate director for administration and government performance at OMB.

Gerton agreed that the budget question "adds an element of uncertainty" to what is being asked of agencies.

"There's a gulf of disconnect between what Congress is saying it thinks about the skinny budget, and what it is," she said.

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