Without confirmed subcabinet officials, President Donald Trump's executive order calling for a federal government reorganization will be managed by agency chiefs and career executives.
President Donald Trump hasn't yet announced a formal management agenda, but the White House budget blueprint released March 16 is explicitly links executive orders freezing civilian government hiring and launching a federal agency reorganization to plans to dramatically cut civilian agency spending while refocusing government efforts on defense and homeland security.
"Legislation will be required before major reorganization of the Executive Branch can take place," the budget blueprint stated, "but the White House is best situated to review and recommend changes to the Congress."
The document promised the White House would deliver to Congress a "comprehensive plan for reorganization proposals" in about a year, after the 180-day process of gathering recommendations from agencies and the public called for by executive order is conducted and after the Office of Management and Budget shapes those recommendations into legislation.
The relatively short clock on the process is sound policy, said former OMB Controller Dave Mader, who also served as acting deputy director for management and is now the civilian sector chief strategy officer at Deloitte.
"I don't think we lack for sources of information" on areas for finding efficiencies, Mader said. "Within OMB, the budget examiners, working with departments, have ideas. There are [Government Accountability Office] reports on overlap and duplication. They've been issuing those for years. Now we have 180 days to pull all of this together."
Robert Shea, another former OMB hand, cautioned that there are risks to launching a massive reorganization process without having a deep bench of confirmed subcabinet officials in place.
"The agencies are at a disadvantage not having politicals in place to help manage this process," said Shea, who was OMB's associate director for administration and government performance under President George W. Bush and is currently a principal focused on civilian agency practice at Grant Thornton. "That's not to suggest that there are not politicals in place to offer guidance and advice, but it would be better to have a confirmed person to help oversee that process and negotiate it with OMB."
"It's not that career folks don't have the ideas about big change," said Terry Gerton, president and CEO of the National Academy for Public Administration. "But if these examinations are from the top down within the bounds of an agency, the opportunities for duplication and overlap are typically interagency," she said. "That becomes difficult politically without confirmed subcabinet officials in place."
But Shea also said that from the point of view of actually getting something done, it makes sense to proceed across government, rather than to bite off little pieces.
"We tried to consolidate 17 community and economic development programs into the [the Department of] Commerce" during the Bush administration, Shea said. "It was a big fight. I anticipate where you have multiple, similar reorganization efforts at the same time, it would be easier. Opposition couldn't be focused on a single proposal."
Another issue is that targeting redundancies only goes so far.
"It will be interesting to see how new agency secretaries approach this," said Gerton, who served as a senior executive at the Defense and Labor departments after a 20-year career as an Army officer. "For folks who've been around, we know that the easy pickings have already been had."
Shea agreed on this point. "If this is a cost-saving exercise, [reducing] overlap and duplication are not going to get you there. You'll need to shed functions altogether," he said.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), ranking member of the Government Operations Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform panel thinks that there is a cynical, even "nihilistic and anarchic" element to the whole enterprise.
"This isn't some honest, good-government reorganization, an Al Gore 2.0," Connolly said. "This is in the context of a massive hiring freeze, the resurrection of the Holman Rule" and the looming proposed budget cuts, he said. "Trump has picked, as heads of agencies, people who have avowedly renounced the missions of those agencies."
Connolly is also wary of the whole process being routed through the White House budget office.
"The order gives enormous power to the head of OMB," he said. "It's vaguely worded, but it invests the OMB director with enormous authority to make recommendations," on eliminating and combining programs, as well as devolving functions to state and local governments.
Gerton said that if federal functions are going to be handed over to states, it would make sense to have representatives of those governments involved in the process directly and not just have them submit comments to a Federal Register posting.
"I would hope that Trump invites the governors in -- to discuss what they're thinking about and what that means for the states -- so that solutions can be developed collaboratively," she said. "Surprise is not a good government technique."
Shea said that he's looking for a "new compact with state and local government," so that if federal spending is cut and functions devolve to the states, it is done so with the understanding that "federal reporting and oversight will be done to the minimal extent that is absolutely necessary."
Mader said he was anticipating "some very good, outside-of-the-box thinking," both from Trump appointees who hail from the business world and from career agency executives who have been around government programs for their entire careers.
Connolly, on the other hand, anticipates a political battle.
"It's going to be a big, huge, brawling philosophical fight," about the role of government, the congressman said. "And I've got my boxing gloves."