What's next for agency reorg plans?

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A comprehensive reform of the federal government is a top management priority for the Trump White House, but proposed budget cuts and continued leadership vacancies pose additional challenges to successful reform.

As it stands, agencies are wrapping up their reorganization plans to "eliminate or reorganize unnecessary or redundant federal agencies," as mandated by a March executive order that directed agency heads to submit the plans within 180 days and tasked the Office of Management and Budget with a lead role in carrying out the reorganization effort.

In the wake of the Trump administration's hiring freeze, followed by the OMB guidance that lifted the freeze but directed agencies to provide near-term workforce reduction progress reports, the ongoing agency reorganizations present questions about the future of their workforces.

Robert Shea, a principal of Grant Thornton's public sector practice, noted there is a lot of overlap and duplication across government that can be looked at, but added, "reorganization for reorganization's sake is distracting because it's going to cost money, and get people worked up for not a lot of good reason."

NAPA President and CEO Emeritus Dan Blair said the goals of reorganization should primarily focus on what "is being done to better done the agency's ability to carry out the mission."

Productive reorganization entails "an effort to avoid [reductions in force]," Blair said. "It's not conducive to good management... The last thing you want to do is go through RIFs."

Federal workers appear to be getting out ahead of possible cuts. An Aug. 4 article in Government Executive observed that according to the July jobs report, federal agency employment was down 10,700 since Trump took office.

Blair, who served as OPM deputy director during the George W. Bush administration, said these reforms "should be shepherded by the highest ranks of the agency... hand-in-hand with the [human resources] office."

In the process of eliminating "unnecessary or redundant federal agencies," however, Blair pointed out that agencies will have to figure out what to do with the employees who worked in programs that may be targeted by the order.

"If program Y is not a priority, what are you going to do with the employees of program Y?" he said. "You could shift them to program X, but it's possible they don't have the skillset."

And if major reforms are enacted at an agency, such as the shuttering or consolidation of offices, Shea added, that means "all their operations are going to have to be modified to adapt to the new structure and new goals."

"If you're moving people from one organization to another, they have to be physically moved, trained, inculcated in the processes of the new organization," he said. "If you're actually eliminating a function... you're going to have to take care of the people you're letting go."

Additionally, just how radical these reorganizations can really be will depend on whether Congress gets involved with funding and statutory authorization.

Shea, who was OMB's associate director for administration and government performance under Bush, said that while "there's a lot organizations can do on their own, and agencies have varying levels of authority" to reorganize, eventually "Congress will almost invariably have to get involved."

Blair did suggest that one way pare down and shape the skillset of a workforce is for agencies to offer voluntary buyouts to employees, especially those already eligible for retirement.

The White House budget proposal for fiscal year 2018 slashes the budgets of many civilian agencies, but Blair pointed out less funding doesn't necessarily impede plans to restructure.

"It's not so much about the money, but looking, as an agency head, at what resources you have available and channeling those into your priorities," he said. "If you remain mission-focused, you can structure an agency, even in an atmosphere of reduced resources, where you can deliver effectively on that mission."

Another challenge facing productive reform is the number of vacancies in leadership positions.

Trump's sluggish pace of political appointments, compounded by slower-than-usual Senate confirmations, leaves many agency leadership positions — ones who would be helping to carry out his management agenda — unfilled.

Shea said that while it's possible for acting leadership to drive reform that's meaningful, "generally though, you're going to have career staff hesitant in the absence of cover from political leadership and the White House."

The risk presented by these vacancies, as agencies prepare to reorganize how they conduct business, is that "the reforms will lack the internal leadership within the departments," said Blair.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a former FCW staff writer.


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