Trump eyes unusual move on government accountability before Biden takes office
The White House is considering changes to the budgeting process that require agencies to spell out their policy goals and show progress in achieving them, an unusual move given the imminent change in administration.
According to emails obtained by The Hill, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) plans to craft a memo in the coming weeks that would overhaul how agencies undertake strategic planning and make progress toward accomplishing their objectives in order to receive funding from Congress.
A source familiar with the discussions described it as an unorthodox step on the part of the Trump administration given that the existing mechanisms “are in place to really make government, ideally, more efficient.”
The proposed changes could bring about a major shift in how the government sets goals and evaluates its work, less than a month before the Biden administration takes over.
“It is co-opting the prerogative of the Biden administration to mold its own budget process,” said Robert Shea, associate director at OMB during the George W. Bush administration who is now a principal at consulting firm Grant Thornton LLP.
“It’s a weird time to do it.”
Shea was referring to OMB’s move to revise what’s known as Circular A-11, a thousand-page document for federal agencies to use when they compile their annual budget requests. The key provision targeted by the Trump administration requires agencies to justify their funding requests by demonstrating they are making progress on their goals.
Shea said that while agencies sometimes view the performance measures as busy work on top of the already complex budgeting process, it’s a vital exercise to ensure agencies work toward administration goals and justify the spending of taxpayer dollars.
“All of this is embedded in here because it represents the priorities the administration is trying to accomplish, and of course the budget is one of the principal tools that they have to get stuff done,” he said.
“If performance measures are pulled out of A-11, the White House has lost a lot of leverage in getting agencies to take that threat seriously.”
When reached for comment, OMB pushed back against the notion that it would entirely strip strategic planning and performance measures from the budget guidelines — something Congress required with the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA). But it acknowledged that changes are in the works.
The requirements in the 1993 law have “failed to be effective or drive performance and transparency,” an OMB spokesperson told The Hill by email, adding that the statute has not been used meaningfully by Congress, the White House or the public.
“To fix these failures, we are updating how GPRA is implemented so there is actual compliance, and not the current check-the-box-work that accomplished nothing – to the point that even Congress has stopped paying attention to the information that costs taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce and distracts from other important efforts,” the spokesperson said.
Some worry the last-minute changes spell trouble, especially as this would be the second time this year it has been updated, whereas updates typically happen only once a year. The White House updated the document in July.
“It does regularly go through updates, but this one feels different and more substantial… No one knew they were working on updating it at all,” said the source familiar with the discussions, adding that the move would likely take agencies by surprise.
“This is very close to the transition and is not normally when you’d be looking to revise this.”
The Biden White House could similarly update the guidance before the budgeting process for fiscal 2022 is in full swing, but there are signs that the incoming administration could find itself staffed by a significant number of Trump holdovers at OMB due to an earlier executive order.
A potential revision of the good governance measures in Circular A-11 follows an executive order from President Trump in October that created a new class of federal employees who would not be subject to the same civil service protections offered to career staff.
The order says “agencies need the flexibility to expeditiously remove poorly performing employees from these positions without facing extensive delays or litigation.”
Critics fear that order will be used to more expeditiously fire career staff while allowing Trump political appointees to stay on as part of the next administration. The new classification of government workers, known as Schedule F employees under Trump’s executive order, cannot be dismissed due to their political leanings.
At OMB, the new classification has already been widely used, with the agency requesting to transfer 88 percent of its workforce, 425 people, into the new category, according to a Nov. 21 report from RealClearPolitics.
Federal employee unions have already sued the government to halt the reclassification, as departments must turn over their requests for reclassifying employees shortly before Inauguration Day. The government’s response in the case isn’t due until Jan. 15, five days before Biden is sworn in.
House Democrats are also pushing the Trump administration to turn over those lists.
“Protecting the nonpartisan expertise of the career civil service is essential to the safety and security of the American people. The merit system principles of the federal workforce put in place guardrails to ensure that competitive service requirements are not bypassed to inappropriately place political appointees in permanent career service positions,” lawmakers wrote in a November letter to the White House signed by each committee chair.