Federal Websites, Agencies Frozen in Time, or MIA

Tried checking the Office of Management and Budget website? You can't, because it's not there.

A search resulted in this message from the White House: “Thank you for your interest in this subject. STAY TUNED AS WE CONTINUE TO UPDATE WHITEHOUSE.GOV.”

The OMB, a White House agency, is the “implementation and enforcement arm of Presidential policy government-wide,” according to an archived version of the agency's website as it existed under President Barack Obama. The OMB is responsible, among other things, for reviewing other agencies’ regulations before they're published.

Don Kettl, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, told Bloomberg BNA Feb. 8 that the OMB is one of many agencies that have yet to move into second gear under the Trump administration. This will present challenges for the administration as it seeks to put together and implement policies affecting the federal workforce, he said.

‘Atypical’ Rollout

The pace at which the Trump administration is naming agency leaders and getting them confirmed is “atypical” for a new administration, said Kettl, who is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Washington-based Partnership for Public Service.

The administration has been slow to reveal its agency picks and to provide the necessary financial disclosure documents for them, he said. Democrats in Congress also are slowing down the process—for example, by denying Senate committees the necessary quorums—because they don't have the votes to stop President Donald Trump's nominees from being confirmed by the Senate, Kettl said.

Paradoxically, the lack of agency appointees may have allowed the Trump administration to get off to a fast start in identifying its priorities, Kettl said. This is because there were no officials in place to apply the “brakes” on the initial rollout of the administration's agenda, he said.

“Part of what they're trying to do is to put down some big markers,” Kettl said. “They haven't been slowed down by a large apparatus.”

But the lack of structure may harm the administration as it begins implementing policy decisions, Kettl said.

Public attention has focused on the status of top-tier nominees such as Trump's pick for OMB director, Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), he said. But the lack of second-level political appointees at big agencies and chiefs at smaller agencies may have a big impact as the administration tries to move into second gear, Kettl said.

“The real work of putting the government into gear is in the hands of the deputies,” he said.

Limits on Acting Directors

The website for the Office of Personnel Management, the federal HR agency, is mostly frozen in time. There are no new speeches, blog posts or news items. Which isn't surprising, given that the agency is still awaiting a new director and other political staff.

Kettl said the Trump administration doesn't appear to be rushing to nominate a new OPM director. “There aren't even good rumors about OPM at this point,” he said.

Although the OPM has an acting director, “there are limits as to what acting directors can do,” Kettl said.

The administration has made it clear that it wants to transform the federal workforce. But it will be difficult to make changes without a team in place at the OPM, Kettl said.

For example, the administration must determine its strategy for working with Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, on changes to federal pay and benefits.

Chaffetz has made it clear that he intends to pursue legislative changes to the federal retirement system and to how federal employees are managed and paid, Kettl said.

The OPM also has a role in determining policy on issues such as security clearances for federal employees and cybersecurity defenses for the government's information technology systems, Kettl said.

“There are some big policy issues that an acting director just can't decide,” he said.

By contrast, Obama before beginning his first term in office had settled on John Berry as the next OPM director, and let federal employee unions know who his pick would be.

Obama formally announced his intent to nominate Berry, who at the time was director of the National Zoo, for OPM chief on March 3, 2009. Berry was confirmed by the Senate a month later, on April 3.

Members Needed at Merit Board

The Merit Systems Protection Board, which protects federal workers against prohibited personnel practices, has just one member. This means the panel can't issue rulings in response to appeals of administrative judges’ decisions. Republican Mark A. Robbins, the only member on the MSPB, is now the panel's vice chairman.

The MSPB at full strength has three members. Trump will need nominate two new members—a Republican and a Democrat, because the three board members can't all be from the same political party.

Having a working MSPB may be more important than the Trump administration now realizes, Kettl said.

“If you're interested in trying to transform the workforce, there are appeal rights” for federal workers under existing law, he said. “The MSPB needs to be in place as the administration seeks to do what it wants to do,” he said.

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