President Donald Trump has taken his first serious step to drain the swamp by placing a freeze on new federal government hiring.
How deep does the draining go? His executive order applies to all civilian government entities, but agency heads can choose to exempt positions with “national security or public safety responsibilities,” presumably exempting large swaths of the Defense, Homeland Security, and Justice departments and other agencies representing a majority of civil service employment. Further exemptions reaching beyond safety may be made by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which estimates that 20,000 open positions would be directly affected.
The good news is that the order also requires OPM and the Office of Management and Budget to deliver a long-term plan to actually reduce the size of government within 90 days. The bad news is that the freeze will end automatically after 90 days and any personnel cuts thereafter are to be made through attrition, presumably not through any reductions in force.
It is a good start but too early to evaluate what actually will result. Neither OPM nor OMB directors have been confirmed or even been designated in the case of the former or for the OMB deputy for management. With Democratic Senate Leader Chuck Schumer promising to delay confirmations, the 90 days will go quickly with bureaucrats in charge much of the time.
What is this bureaucracy President Trump must confront? The predominant view sees it as perhaps less than perfectly efficient but only requiring expert management to straighten it out. The other is that bureaucracy itself is a big part of the problem. The president would seem in the latter camp, with his inaugural speech aimed at “a small group in our nation’s capital” reaping “the rewards of government, while the people have borne the cost: Washington flourished but the people did not share in its wealth.” With seven of the nation’s 10 wealthiest counties in the D.C. area, the employee union bosses immediately recognized the fire was directed at them.
The great majority of experts advising presidents, however, follow the public administration community in supporting the so-called “scientific administration” model of government, originated by the great sociologist Max Weber and implemented by his admirer Woodrow Wilson, who fashioned American public administration. It is based on the belief that neutral professional administrators have the expertise to lead a centralized “responsible bureaucracy” toward the scientific solutions necessary to solve the nation’s social problems.
Philip K. Howard is one of the more reasonable experts, an author and president of the government reform organization Common Good. His recommendations to President Trump are a good summary of his ideas and those of much of the public administration community. He offers many good ideas such as making it easier to fire bureaucrats and sunset bad laws and regulations and even suggests constitutional amendments to overrule courts. But his basic approach is to improve internal administration by relying on the career experts.
Howard warns Trump that the last six presidents starting with Jimmy Carter have tried to take political control of the bureaucratic “red-tape machine” and failed. He criticized Trump’s proposal to eliminate two previous rules before adopting a new one because it is too broad, focused upon the number of rules rather than results. Both liberals and conservatives, he argues, follow a flawed “clear law” philosophy that tries “to prescribe every possible good choice and proscribe every possible evil” in a futile effort to exorcise “human responsibility.” In that world, bureaucrats can then blame their poor micromanagement because “the rule made me do it.”
The “only solution,” says Howard, is to focus on results. This can be done by civil servants “who take responsibility for getting the job done” based upon their “expert judgement” under “clear lines of authority and responsibility.” Rather than detailed rules, Howard proposes general principles, such as in the case of safety, that tools be “reasonably suited for the use intended,” or that for nursing homes to provide a “home-like setting.” He concedes even this would not guarantee successful management but “gives us the freedom to try.”
But who does it liberate? Who is this freedom actually for? It is for the expert bureaucrats to make judgements within broader rules that would be inherently more subjective, potentially more arbitrary, and often different than what their political bosses want as policy.
Paul C. Light is perhaps the nation’s No. 1 public administration expert and a professor at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service. He too has good ideas but articulates his advice to Trump politically rather than directly professionally, saying that for him to govern effectively, he must appeal more broadly to moderate swing voters, who are described as wanting reformed government but also bigger government, major campaign finance reform, tougher financial conflict-of-interest laws, and protection of “essential federal programs,” which apparently means everything Washington does, including opposing bureaucratic hiring freezes.
These hardly seem like Trump material and in fact did not vote for him. Light is nearer his professional concerns with other reforms that his larger report suggests would receive very large public support: cutting the number of layers of bureaucracy that have increased from 17 levels in 1961 to 63 today and reforming the broken government career hiring and personnel systems. He does not say so, but the only ones who would oppose these are the bureaucrats themselves, their powerful unions and the congressional allies they support who have frustrated earlier attempts at reform and are already lined up opposing the hiring freeze.
The real reason angry voters have become the dominant voice is that today’s Washington just might require 63 levels for all it is doing, so getting it right means doing less, sending what is broken to leaner local bureaucracies to fix or to privatize.
The flaw in the Weber plan is that it is derived from private sector experience, whereas economist Ludwig von Mises’ classic book Bureaucracy has demonstrated that government is fundamentally different. Former Intel CEO and Office of Management and Budget Director Roy Ash, as a businessman, described it more colorfully. He compared going from private sector management to government bureaucracy as like going from softball to ice hockey. Your board of directors is made up of your competitors, your employees, your customers and suppliers — and that realization about power politics must guide all you do as a political executive dealing with supposed subordinates who know every trick in book to frustrate and outlast you.
Contrary to Howard, Jimmy Carter’s bureaucracy reforms and Ronald Reagan’s implementation of them actually did even the playing field in this bureaucracy contact sport for a while, but they atrophied as political managers, tired of confronting the politicized bureaucratic blob. The solution is to revitalize and expand the tools to enable political executives coming from outside the bureaucracy to manage their subordinates and make them responsible. To do this, the president must first demand swift action to nominate and confirm nominees all the way down the organizational chain and then demand they actually run their agencies.
Schumer’s plan is to delay confirmations so that sympathetic bureaucrats can be the de facto CEOs of the executive branch for much or all of the critical first 100 days. Reform in a democracy can only come if the opportunity is grasped early on by dynamic chief executives taking bold steps before, as Weber predicted, the charisma becomes routinized.
President Trump is providing the audacity, but unless his administration internalizes Ash’s lesson, the orders and plans can go out from the White House but nothing will happen.