Plans to Streamline Agencies, Regulations Likely to Fall Short

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By Cheryl Bolen

President Donald Trump has big plans to overhaul the federal government and cut regulations in short order, but right now he just doesn’t have the people to carry them out.

“There is clearly room to better organize the federal government,” said Beth Cobert, former deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget in the Obama administration. “There is clearly room to think about regulatory streamlining.”

“It has to been done deliberately and with a goal of improving the way government functions and delivers services for the American people—not simply by slashing budgets,” Cobert told Bloomberg BNA.

There was a great deal of effort put into both of those initiatives during the Obama administration, Cobert said. But key “linchpins” for those kinds of efforts are deputy secretaries, who are the real operational executives in agencies, “and they’re not there,” she said.

Nominations Are Lagging

The Partnership for Public Service has been tracking 553 key executive branch positions requiring Senate confirmation, including deputy and assistant secretaries and heads of agencies.

Of those, 495 are awaiting nomination, 38 have been nominated and are awaiting confirmation, and 20 have been confirmed by the Senate. Three nominations, including deputy administrator of the Small Business Administration, were announced by the White House late March 23.

Trump, meanwhile, has signed two executive orders ( EO 13,777, EO 13,781) that require the heads of each agency to appoint task forces to review regulations or conduct reviews of operations and to submit reports to OMB. The first report on cutting regulations is due on April 25.

At OMB, which will receive the reports, there are vacancies for the deputy director, the deputy director for management and the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which reviews regulations.

Vacancies a Problem

Most agencies are now being led by acting heads, who are career executives, and “beachhead teams” of political appointees put in place by the Trump transition team. Deputy secretaries have been nominated, but not confirmed, for seven departments: Commerce, Defense, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Justice, Transportation and Treasury.

One of the takeaways from efforts during the Obama administration is that it is “really hard” to move from ideas that sound great in concept to actually making them happen, Cobert said. And unless someone really does the work and nails down the details, the effort will fall short of its potential, she said.

“The devil is in the details and you need people who know the details—that includes the career team. But you need people to help set direction and make trade-offs, and those people aren’t there,” Cobert said.

“This is the kind of process that to have impact, you need both some top-down direction and bottom-up problem-solving, and you’ve got to be constantly bringing those two things together,” she said.

Budget Needed Too

One key detail is an agency’s budget, Cobert said. “Trying to reorganize without a budget framework in place, or a sense of what your budget is, is quite difficult,” she said.

Although OMB has released a budget blueprint for fiscal year 2018, agencies still don’t know what the rest of their FY 2017 budgets will be, Cobert said. “How you would reorganize would significantly depend on what happens to your budget,” she said.

The scale of support functions that an agency needs depends on the scale of the agency’s programs and how they are administered, Cobert said. If an agency administers a program directly, versus granting money to states to execute the program, it should build a different organization, she said.

Also, at least historically, Congress has not favored giving the executive branch much discretion about how it spends its budget, Cobert said.

Trump’s executive order gives agency heads until Sept. 9 to submit to the OMB director a proposed plan to reorganize their agencies. OMB also intends to seek public comment within the next six months.

Congress’s Permission

There were a number of initiatives started in the Obama administration to make government operate better, Cobert said.

“I think there’s more room to continue those initiatives and accelerate them,” which could include IT modernization, strategic sourcing, shared services or better inter-agency coordination, Cobert said.

“When you get to programmatic areas, it does depend upon Congress and their willingness to go along with the changes,” Cobert said.

Congress did not give former President Barack Obama the authority to reorganize the executive branch, and it is unclear what this administration’s plan is to work with Congress to make that happen, Cobert said. “But many capabilities need congressional approval to be moved.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Cheryl Bolen in Washington at cbolen@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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