What is Coming to Your Agency on June 30?

Change is slow to take effect inside of the federal bureaucracy. The author says that a recent OMB memo pushes major changes at agencies and challenges old ways of thinking.

I’ve been asking around and found that the OMB directive on Reshaping Government isn’t getting much attention in some quarters. I guess I forget sometimes how the downward flow of information and direction dominates initiative throughout Agencies.

I watched a show the other day on the National Geographic Channel about what happened on September 11, 2001. Perhaps the most telling snippet for this article was from the FAA career executive who directed all airborne flights to land at the closest airports to them as soon as possible. He said he shortly got a call from his headquarters asking what authority he had to do that. An hour later, he got a call from the same person asking why he hadn’t done it sooner.

I have a good friend (Former career executive) who likes to say that government is an ocean liner not a speedboat. Course changes are slow and take a lot of time. The fact that the OMB directive was issued before almost all political leadership is in place is pushing an enormous change in ocean liner navigation thinking at Agencies by its very nature.

Career SES managers are being asked to take on a bunch of risk at a potentially substantial cost in terms of political, dollars, staff impact and perhaps their career prospects.

While it appears the administration has made a revolutionary call on this, we haven’t seen much said about it either in the press or in OMB statements.

I say political impact in that any reshuffling of Agencies internally will likely affect:

  • The way Congressional staff offices interact with Agencies, perhaps impacting hill committee work.
  • If changes address where work will be done, every congressman gaining or losing Federal employees in their district will want to weigh in. Who knows, perhaps for the next few years, the location of Federal offices and workers may become the new earmark system, let’s call it FTEs for Favors or vote for my highway appropriation and you can have a government IT hub in your district.
  • If BRAC was any indication, state and local political players will be marching on Washington to get jobs in their locality.

Regarding staff impact in one area, government, as an entity, hasn’t looked at headquarters or field office location much since the IT revolution of the 21st century. I’m not sure how old the concept of the 10 regional cities may be but some Agencies have been chipping away at the idea little by little for a while.

Of course, some will say that we already have large Federal campuses in big cities with legacy (in more ways than one) buildings downtown so why change it. I wonder if there’s a capitalist or two type thinker at GSA who’d love to get commercial square footage rates for properties in downtown New York, Chicago, etc. making for high income for Uncle Sam.

Banks build brick and mortar buildings to inspire confidence. So has Uncle Sam in the past. Must we continue to have symbols of this sort going forward? D.C., of course, is mostly composed of monumental buildings whether they’re monuments or not. Are we locked into keeping those buildings filled with people just because the buildings exist?

Will employees revolt at reshuffling? I think unions will as they have been historically opposed to virtually any change. Employees may look favorably on changes that minimize the work footprint in their daily lives. Less commuting, more independence in living locations, or more independence generally will be attractive to many.

As I ask around, I’m hearing that a lot of sub-cabinet Agencies are waiting for specific direction on how to proceed. In other words, not doing much. June 30 reports may affect this approach. Those who hold on to the “deep state” view may watch this process carefully as well. As always, lots of complexity in all this.

OMB’s directive states that they want a draft plan by June 30 to include what’s already been done since the issuance of the directive. So, June 30 comes and a cabinet Agency is asked, where are the plans and accomplishments for your subordinate Agencies? Do you think, “well, aaah…” will cut it?

So, What’s an Agency Executive to Do?

Imagine you’re sitting at your computer right now (if you’re reading this, you’re probably there already) and there’s someone asking, “What are YOU going to do to comply with the OMB directive?” Think about a scenario in which you have half the money you currently get and half the staff. Questions might be:

  • What’s the most essential mission job I can do in this scenario?
  • What regulatory change, if any, would be needed if this scenario was required?
  • What do we start doing, stop doing, do differently to get to there?
  • What positions do I need to do the new job?
  • What organizational shift(s) are needed, if any, to support the new scenario.

The number one rule of an organization is to never offer up sacrifices until the other guys do, right? Assume that rule and password protect your plan. If I were you I’d get it done by June 1 and see what comes down in the meantime. If you’ve had a pet peeve you’ve been carrying around that involves efficiency, economy or immediate cost reduction, you might want to dust it off, edit it for public consumption and be ready for the “What do you folks suggest show” coming in June.

Some folks I know are saying that the initiative reflected in the OMB directive is way too ambitious; fails to recognize government realities; is naïve about the willingness of career executives to get on board; and is generally doomed to hit the wall that other reform movements have.

November’s election proved that traditional approaches to just about anything involving the Federal government are no longer certainties. Since January, all would agree that this administration will act unlike any other in memory. One trend appears to be that this administration goes out big and then may be willing to deal down to a lesser arrangement to accommodate others’ interests. Will this strategy work? Time will tell.

As always, anything you construe as an opinion by me is my responsibility and none others’.

I’ve recently read some interesting quotes on government bureaucracy by a Democrat, a Republican, the President and one of our once most powerful military figures:

“The only thing that saves us from the bureaucracy is its inefficiency.”

~ Eugene McCarthy

“I understand how bureaucracies work. And that’s important because our government has become a vast, huge, bloated, corrupt bureaucracy.”

~ Carly Fiorina

“Getting things done in this country, if you want to build something, if you want to start a company, it’s getting to be virtually impossible with all of the bureaucracy and all of the approvals.”

~ Donald Trump

“If you are going to sin, sin against God, not the bureaucracy. God will forgive you but the bureaucracy won’t.”

~ Hyman Rickover

After reading these, I am struck most of all by a quote of Abe Lincoln, who said “Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government, practically just so much.” Times haven’t changed much, have they?

About the Author

Bob Gilson is a consultant with a specialty in working with and training Federal agencies to resolve employee problems at all levels. A retired agency labor and employee relations director, Bob has authored or co-authored a number of books dealing with Federal issues and also conducts training seminars.