OMB gets avalanche of government improvement suggestions

The White House call for suggestions from federal employees and the public has brought in over 60,000 submissions.

Shutterstock image (by Makkuro GL): crowdsourcing innovation.

The Trump administration is getting an earful of advice from federal employees and the broader public about how to improve the government’s performance.

So far, according to two key Office of Management and Budget officials, over 60,000 comments have been filed in response to OMB Director Mick Mulvaney’s request for public input about improving federal agency efficiencies and operations. Those comments are being filed through June 12 on the White House’s website.

In March, the White House charged Mulvaney with determining "whether the costs of continuing to operate an agency, a component, or a program are justified by the public benefits it provides" and calculating "the costs of shutting down or merging agencies, components, or programs, including the costs of addressing the equities of affected agency staff."

Mulvaney issued his guidance on April 12, along with a notice requesting public comment on improvements in federal agency organization. Under the guidance, agencies must provide draft reports by June that detail how they will push more efficiencies into their operations.  Final plans are due in September.

The comment period “crowdsources” suggestions from the public and federal workers, acting federal CIO Margie Graves said.

In comments during a May 4 presentation at the Association of Government Accountants' CIO/CFO Summit in Washington, D.C., Graves said OMB will analyze the suggestions, group them according to pertinent agency and task OMB staff to drive cross-cutting governmentwide ideas. Graves and Mark Reger, OMB's deputy controller, both encouraged more suggestions.

Reger said there were 63,000 submissions, and Graves said there were more coming in.

“The expectation is we want to source the big ideas," Graves said.  "Don’t be shy about what you’re bringing forward. Don’t nibble around the edges,” even if those ideas require broader actions, such as congressional consideration, to implement.

The tens of thousands of suggestions, Reger said, will be sorted not only by agency and overarching issues, but also by what can be acted on most quickly. Graves said OMB is using data analytics to sift through all the ideas.

Graves, Reger and other agency officials at the AGA event said the Trump White House’s efficiency efforts take a bit of a different tack than past administrations by putting agencies in charge of making changes.

“I’m a 25-year fed,” said Laurie Park, deputy assistant secretary of finance and controller at the Department of Veterans Affairs, during one panel. The effort to push efficiencies into the federal government, she said, “ebbs and flows through every administration. This administration has turned it over to agencies to give them the chance to do the right thing.”

The current White House’s effort, she said, is commendable, but it also has a downside, particularly for smaller agencies.

The agency-specific review, Park said, could miss higher-level inefficiencies that cut across many agencies. Additionally, with the past couple of years forcing agencies large and small to tighten their belts and ferret out inefficiencies to cut costs, smaller agencies -- with fewer resources and personnel -- “may be at the bottom of their digging,” she said.

“This administration has been less proscriptive” than others in directing agencies to cut inefficiencies, leaving it up to agencies themselves, said Glenn Davidson, the Commerce Department's executive director for enterprise services. The White House, he said, has largely left it up to agencies to develop their own strategies.

Graves said OMB is also taking a look at compliance requirements to see if they create operational burdens or inadvertently steer agencies in the wrong direction. There is no need to document systems' Y2K resilience, for example, since that crisis passed almost 20 years ago. The same goes for Windows XP requirements, she said.

Participants on several panels agreed that shared services and the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act will help agency efficiency and IT modernization efforts.

The reporting shared under the DATA Act will be a great weapon for agencies to leverage in moving to modernize their IT systems, Graves said. The law aims to make information on federal expenditures more easily accessible and transparent. May is the milestone date for agencies to electronically submit the required financial data, though some may miss that deadline.

Shared services, Davidson said, could be a “core principle” to make federal agencies more efficient. Graves and Reger also backed shared services, particularly for core finance and human resources services, as a path to the future. However, they said some adjustments must be made, such as how not to force a single, immutable solution on very different federal agencies. Successful shared services will require  a more nuanced approach, they said, with some specialized add-on capabilities for unique agency functions.

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