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Trump's disruption: Could there be a silver lining?

Dec. 2016 rally. Photo credit: Evan El-Amin / Shutterstock.com 

There could be a benefit to the Trump administration's slow pace of political appointments. (Photo credit: Evan El-Amin / Shutterstock.com)

I loved the recent Washington Post Magazine article on that superb public servant, John Koskinen, currently IRS commissioner. John once poked fun at his perpetually upbeat nature by noting that his wife described him as the type of person who, viewing the remnants of a devastating tornado, would proclaim "What a great opportunity to renew our downtown business district!"

I am not in Koskinen's league, by any stretch, but I can see some positive effects of the new president's actions to date.

Like what, you ask? Like leaving a number of senior and other political appointee positions unfilled. Good government groups (aka "goo-goos") and management experts have long bemoaned the increase in the number of jobs filled by political appointees as opposed to career staff. Professor Paul Light referred to this as the "thickening of government," with more layers of leaders and more leaders per layer. Light argues forcefully that more leaders does not equal more leadership, and "may actually weaken government's capacity to act by diffusing accountability."

So President Donald Trump may be creating an opportunity to thin the organization chart, akin to the "Bulge Project" under President Ronald Reagan or the reinventing government initiative led by Vice President Al Gore in the Clinton administration. Plus, without the plethora of sub-Cabinet appointees, Cabinet officials have the opportunity to work with and learn the capabilities of senior career executives. Might that not be another positive effect -- returning a number of agency heads, deputies and assistant secretary positions to the career ranks? Moreover, new appointees "go native" quickly and might actually work against rather than in support of the new president's budget and reorganization proposals.

Another example: The "goo-goos" have decried the president's proposed budget cuts, noting that they might lead to layoffs and encourage the remaining baby boomers to retire from public service. Would that be such a terrible thing? The average age of government employees continues to increase. While employee loyalty and staff retention rates in government can only be envied in the private sector, a changing of the guard is long overdue.

Again and again, at conference after conference, when we are asked what the government needs in order to change, the answer is not new legislation or regulation, better systems or another presidential initiative. All those elements are important, but the inevitable answer is, "We need to change the culture." And to change the culture, we need to change old thinking, old ways of doing business, old management styles. We need to change many of the senior people.

It is time for them to go. It is time for them to go so that a new generation can take root and begin to lead the government to a more mission-oriented, solution-minded, enterprise-wide approach to current challenges.

This new generation is more open to information sharing and collaboration -- more of a Web 2.0 approach. Don Tapscott, co-author of "Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything" dubs this "the Net Generation" and the Wiki Workplace." This is an opportunity to embrace multiculturalism in a connected, integrated, federal government community. In addition, the Government Accountability Office reported a few years ago that what was euphemistically referred to as "decremental budgeting" often spurs innovation and meaningful government reform. After 30-plus years of talking about shared services, purging unnecessary layers, and so on, this may provide the impetus to finally drive change.

I'm willing to give the new administration some additional time before passing judgment on its emerging management reform agenda. I'll restate a point I've made before: If we are -- as so many argue -- at a watershed in modern government, where is the torrent of initiatives that will remake our bureaucracy? Where are the thinkers who will banish our 1950s-era federal processes and structures and remake Washington? And why is our government management reform cupboard so bare, so painfully and embarrassingly short of new ideas?

About the Author

Alan P. Balutis is senior director and distinguished fellow at Cisco Systems.

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