The Federal Government Really Does Need an Overhaul: Can Trump Get It Done?
Policy + Politics

The Federal Government Really Does Need an Overhaul: Can Trump Get It Done?

© Jim Bourg / Reuters

The knives are already out for the Trump administration’s new plan to overhaul the federal bureaucracy using state-of-the art business techniques to enhance efficiency and reduce costs.

President Trump’s 36-year-old son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is heading a new White House Office of American Innovation invested with wide ranging authority to reform and reorganize the federal bureaucracy, improve health care for veterans and help fight the opioid addiction crisis by tapping into the best thinking of corporate America and Silicon Valley.

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Kushner has begun holding twice weekly meetings at the White House with other senior officials, and has reached out to such corporate giants as Apple chief executive Tim Cook, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk to brainstorm change in the federal government.

Kushner, a former New York real estate investor and media executive, told The Washington Post, “We should have excellence in government” and that “government should be run like a great American company.

However, resistance is already building to Kushner’s SWAT team. Some public employees’ leaders and other entrenched interests are warning of possible Trump White House ulterior motives, such as vastly stepping up privatization of government activities to benefit the president’s friends in the private sector while targeting a federal workforce for downsizing that has remained relatively stable for years.

Steven Lenkart, executive director of the National Federation of Federal Employees, representing 110,000 blue and white-collar federal workers, told The Washington Post that he is concerned that the new initiative will have a “lopsided focus” on dismembering offices that enforce environmental or labor regulations.

Related: Government Wastes More Money than You Think

What’s more, Teresa Gerton, a former deputy assistant secretary at the Labor Department under President Obama, said Kushner and his team will find it tempting – if not irresistible -- to replace federal workers with computers to save money.

But having Kushner head the new office of innovation could be arguably one of the few truly positive and constructive ideas to come out of a White House that has been consumed with deporting millions of illegal immigrants, promoting a failed health care plan, and building a $25 billion wall along the nearly 2,000-mile-long southern border with Mexico.

Trump vowed throughout the campaign to use his business skills and talents to reshape the federal bureaucracy while ridding the government of hundreds of billions of dollars of “waste, fraud and abuse.” But he offered few clues as to what he had in mind.

Many of Trump’s predecessors tried but largely failed to make lasting and fundamental changes to the operations of government, and there are no guarantees the new president can do any better.

Related: Billions of Taxpayer Dollars Wasted Annually in Redundant Federal Programs

Yet the need for action is great and well documented. Trump is putting a high-profile adviser in charge of restructuring government.

Kushner, the husband of First Daughter Ivanka Trump and a successful real estate investor in his own right, already had an extraordinary portfolio of responsibilities in the White House, including driving foreign and domestic policy, making presidential personnel decisions and advising Trump on political strategy.

Now he is taking charge of a thorough review of the operations of government, with an eye to changing many long-standing practices of a hidebound federal bureaucracy and accelerating the government’s move to the use of more sophisticated computer and internet operations. He will also set his sights on redundant programs that cost taxpayers billions of dollars each year.

A 2014 report found that it took 10 different offices at the Department of Health and Human Services to operate programs addressing AIDS in minority communities, while autism research was spread over 11 different agencies. At the same time, Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado has eight different satellite control centers to control 10 satellite programs.

Kushner clearly is a newcomer to government, and will face a steep learning curve if he is serious about penetrating the far-flung operations of government and making significant change. Moreover, much of what he will be trying to do to upgrade the government’s computer operations will overlap with the operations of other government offices, including the U.S. Digital Service, led by former Google executive Matt Cutts and populated with engineers and developers.

Related: Justice Department Wastes Millions Through Grant Program Fraud

However, Kushner and his staff on the new White House office of innovation will bring the kind of fire power and centralized focus that others in government cannot provide, as Axios noted today.

In a government where the Internal Revenue Service still depends on antiquated computer systems to process tax returns and ferret out fraud, the Medicare and Medicaid programs have lost hundreds of billions over the years through improper payments and theft. And immigration and enforcement agents must use paper files to track down illegal immigrants because their computers still aren’t up to speed.

As The Fiscal Times wrote in 2015 as part of a series of articles on ways to “Reboot America” to restore Americans’ faith in their institutions, “The federal government is a rudderless behemoth --- a massive $3.7 trillion a year enterprise that is struggling to come to grips with a fast-changing society, mind-boggling innovations in technology and business practices, and growing public impatience with bureaucratic inefficiency, waste and corruption.”

The series concluded that the only way to truly reengineer the federal government was to “embrace a cold-eyed business model that places productivity and accountability at the top of the list.”

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If government leaders were truly interested in pioneering better ways of servicing the country and reducing the deficit and waste, Washington policymakers, bureaucrats and public employees’ unions “must somehow break free of their hidebound and self-defeating practices that reward stasis over progress and risk-taking,” the series argued.

Over the years, many have proposed changes to improve the quality of government, dating back to the Hoover Commission of 1947 appointed by President Harry Truman.

Democratic President Bill Clinton, who put Vice President Al Gore in charge of the “Partnership to Reinvent Government” beginning in 1993, had some of the best results. Their goals included:

  • Putting customers (the American taxpayers) first
  • Cutting red tape
  • Empowering employees to get results
  • Cutting government back to basics 

Gore methodically asked for recommendations from stakeholders and others and two-thirds of the recommendations were adopted in Clinton’s first term. The results included the elimination of 426,000 federal positions, and a drive toward internet-based management, especially at the IRS and VA.

Related: The Pentagon Wasted $125 Billion and Buried the Evidence

Republican President George W. Bush urged lawmakers and bureaucrats to reduce red tape, but he had only modest victories to show for his efforts. Democratic President Barack Obama tried to streamline the federal bureaucracy, but he was blocked by senior lawmakers. His budget office also methodically benchmarked the efficiency of government departments in the areas of supply acquisitions, finance, information technology, personnel and property management.

Obama’s final term revealed just how much work remained to be done.

There were still billions of dollars of waste, fraud and improper spending, especially at the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security. Outrageous management practices at the Veterans Affairs Department forced patients to wait weeks and even months for an appointment that cost many their lives.

There was poor overall monitoring of the performance of government workers and contractors. And there was an appalling lack of competent in-house technological and IT savvy that could have saved the Obama administration from its humiliating on-line rollout of the Affordable Care Act in October 2013.

Government reform typically gets short shrift or provokes yawns on Capitol Hill or along the campaign trail, and Trump and the other Republican and Democratic candidates had relatively little to say about it during the 2016 campaign.

Related: Why Trump Shouldn’t Give the Pentagon Another Dime

Some government experts say that if a new president is serious about making fundamental change in government, he has only a brief window in which to press for change, before his influence begins to wane and opposition mounts.

Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a preeminent research and advocacy group for the federal government, urged Trump and other presidential candidates to think seriously about government reform early in the campaign and to be ready to hit the ground running if they won election.

“If you wait a year or two years into your term to figure out what you want to do on the management agenda, you’ve lost a considerable part of your runway for actually affecting real change,” Stier told The Fiscal Times at the start of the campaign. “We need to see administrations starting with clear management agendas in the same way they start with policy agendas.”