Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Everything Old Is New Again

On March 13, 2017, President Donald J. Trump’s Executive Order 13781 outlined a reorganization plan for the Executive Branch of the Federal government, e.g. the Civil Service.

One month later, on April 12, this was joined by OMB Memorandum M-17–22, “Comprehensive Plan for Reforming the Federal Government andReducing the Federal Civilian Workforce.”

These plans have never been retracted.


The OMB memorandum highlights the desired end state: A civil service that is “lean, accountable, and more efficient.” It notes that:
  • The public is dissatisfied with the current level of cost and performance associated with the Federal government.
  • Too often, “solutions” don’t actually solve problems but rather invent them — so as to make the proposed program rational.
  • Creating new programs is not a real achievement. However, it is an achievement to dismantle or fix a program that isn’t working well.

Actions to Be Taken

As part of the plan to reform the civil service, three action steps are outlined by OMB:
  • Shrink the federal workforce, at first through a hiring freeze and later through agency reform plans. “The Agency Reform Plans must include proposals for the agency’s long ­term workforce reduction plan…and be aligned with the draft agency strategic plan.”
  • Plan to improve employee performance, at least partly by eliminating excessive layers of management to allow fron-tline employees to serve the public more efficiently.
  • Develop a shared services model to provide customer service more efficiently, reducing the costs associated with working in single-agency stovepipes.
Civil service reform was envisioned to occur as part of the fiscal year 2019 budget (October 1, 2018 through September 31, 2019).


OMB asked agencies were asked to take a look at their individual missions and determine whether activities and programs underway were contributing or not. The idea was to eliminate (or restructure) anything that: 1) could be done better by the private sector, 2) wasn’t necessary 3) duplicated a service offered elsewhere in the government, 5) was inefficient, or 5) wasn’t worth the cost.

If a program was necessary but provided poor customer service, agencies were asked to improve its performance.

Key Milestones

  • February 22, 2018: The Congressional Research Service releases a report, “FY2019 Budget: Government Reorganization and Federal Workforce Reform,” summarizing how the budget proposes to implement this, including through reorganization and consolidation. The CRS report links to a fact sheet emphasizing (similar to the prior Administration) the importance of shifting toward “high-value work” and transparent, data-driven decision-making. It also talks about private sector compensation models and improved human capital management.
  • June 18, 2018: Reorganization plan is issued around four principles: “Refocus” (e.g. eliminate extraneous programs), “accountability,” “prioritize,” and “communication and coordination.”
  • September 12, 2018: White House event hosted by OMB and the Mitre Corp., with “some 150 agency alumni, corporate specialists and academics…for an off-the-record symposium on fixing what ails the federal workforce.” OMB Deputy Director Margaret Weichert calls for integrating “passion and rhetoric and profound commitment with the actual facts.”
  • October 11, 2018: The Office of Personnel Management announces streamlined hiring for a range of science and technology-related careers, particularly IT, cybersecurity, and STEM.
  • December 22, 2018: The Federal government partially shuts down for about a month due to lack of agreement over the FY19 budget. This generates headlines about the difficult circumstances encountered by federal employees who were not at work, and the value of federal employees in general.
  • January 2019: The Congressionally-funded National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service releases its first report on Americans’ impressions of the civil service. Based on research conducted in 2018, the report noted that: “recruiting and hiring” practices were perceived as poor and that civil servants themselves were “frustrated” by continually being “portrayed and perceived as being ineffective.” People felt that the human resources system “is too slow, fails to accurately assess job applicants, (and) contains a variety of inflexible hiring preferences.” Officials themselves expressed frustration that “it is difficult to recruit and retain workers with high-demand skills…due in part to competitive market pressures.”

Back to the Future

Because civil service reform is efficiency-oriented, proposals to achieve it tend to sound very much the same from Administration to Administration.

For example, in 2016, a writer for GovExec.com noted 11 areas of emphasis, among them “evidence-based” (e.g., data-driven) programs; “reorganization”; “streamlining”; “shared services”; “agency priority goals”; and an emphasis on cybersecurity to the point of establishing a Federal chief information security officer.

Way back when, in 1993, the National Partnership for Reinventing Government aimed to drive up efficiency, drive down costs, and promote “initiative and empowerment.”

In fact, going back more than 130 years to 1887, President Woodrow Wilson stated:
“Civil service reform must, after the accomplishment of its first purpose, expand into efforts to improve, not the personnel only, but also the organization and methods of our government offices….
“It is the object of administrative study to discover, first, what government can properly and successfully do, and secondly, how it can do these proper things with the utmost possible efficiency and at the least possible cost either of money or of energy.”
Everything old is new again.


By Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal. All opinions are the author’s own. Public domain. Photo credit: PIRO4D via Pixabay (Creative Commons)