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Trump's Government-Shrinking Order


Yesterday, Trump issued a new executive order meant to improve the efficiency of the federal government. But it won’t work.

What’s going on?

As Politico indicates, Trump has identified the right problem (for once), but is incapable of implementing the necessary solutions. The federal government–and the executive branch in particular–have experienced literally centuries of scope creep, with growing missions and ballooning budgets. As someone who believes the government can be a force for good in the lives of the people it ostensibly represents and serves, I don’t favor a whole scale dismantlement or anything like that. But in my professional career, few things have been as obvious to me as the sheer amounts of waste, inefficiency, and organizational dysfunction that exist everywhere–both in the private sector, and the government.

Private sector inefficiency is not a big issue, for me. If companies die because nobody knows how to run them well, so be it. But governments should be invested in continuous improvement of the services they deliver. They should always be seeking efficiencies and optimizations. Unfortunately, budget structuring doesn’t easily accommodate this: agencies must justify their budgets, and nobody is going to ask for less money when they can get more. There are always more services to provide, more salary raises to hand out (not necessarily undeserved!), and so on.

The problem with Trump’s order is that it asks the executive branch to analyze itself and then come up with a reorganization plan without any input from Congress. This makes no sense given that Congress controls the budget for each of these agencies. The order doesn’t mention Congress at all, in fact.

Why is it important?

As someone with quite a bit of experience in the realm of process improvement, I’m fully aware that you cannot improve or correct flawed processes and organizations without engaging all stakeholders. Congress is absolutely a stakeholder in the functioning of the federal government, including the executive branch, whose funding Congress controls. Trump will soon pass his budget proposal on to Congress where it will be debated, then likely carved up and made into an unrecognizable caricature of itself, as befalls virtually all Presidential budgets submitted to Congress.

Under a competent President (and Congress) willing to work together, there could actually be a chance to improve the government’s functioning by coordinating organizational improvements with budget adjustments. Have the executive agencies find savings, then reallocate (or even reduce) spending accordingly–let the government do more with less. And attacking these problems from the top down is the way to go, as well, since most organizational dysfunctions begin at the top, with management, rather than at the level of rank-and-file workers.

It’s not unheard of for Presidents to work with Congress in this way to improve the government’s functions, either. Per Politico:

If Trump really wants to take this plan seriously, he'd look back to the first Hoover Commission, which operated under President Truman from 1947 to 1949. “Quite aside from the disposition of the war organization of the Government,” Truman stated, “other adjustments need to be made currently and continuously in the Government establishment." The Hoover Commission was the gold standard for government reorganization, pairing the commission model with fast-track legislative authority. Not only was it congressionally funded, the commission also had members of the executive and legislative branch on it. The president appointed four individuals (including Herbert Hoover as chairman), as did the Senate president pro tempore and the House Speaker. Half the appointees were Democrats, the rest were Republicans. The commission had dozens of staff, and leveraged a few hundred outside experts in the course of examining the executive branch and recommending reorganizational proposals. In two years, the Hoover commission came up with 273 proposed reforms, more than a hundred of which were enacted during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. Government sprawl was tamed, albeit temporarily. So much got done because the commission gave legislators and the president shared skin in the game. Both could claim credit for modernizing the government.

Of course, that was in an era unlike ours. We live in a hyperpartisan time, where Democrats and Republicans are too at odds to work together, and there is even conflict within the parties over ideological divides. Good luck coming up with solutions when people can’t even agree what the problems are: Republicans believe government is the problem, and as such should be dismantled; Democrats are generally more willing to expand government, but would also likely not be averse to improving its efficiency. It’s just that improving efficiency is something Republicans oppose at all costs, because a more efficient government is a government that works better, and how do you justify tearing down a government that you have no choice but to admit is working well?

What can I do?

This is a thornier matter and I’m reluctant to give much advice, even though I think everyone should pay attention to it.

On the one hand, resisting and opposing Trump is a priority, even when he may have stumbled upon a reasonable idea. In this case, his utterly wrongheaded approach offers ample justification for opposition. There’s little reason to believe he is genuine about wanting to improve the government’s efficiency, for that matter–he likely just wants to shrink it so he can justify tax cuts for himself and other wealthy people. Plus, there’s little chance of his proposal coming to anything, since he’s not working with Congress to make it a reality (and some of his own party opposes him). Even if they could all get their act together, letting Republicans have a good track record in this area gives them leverage for the future, and they have too many electoral advantages as it is. Nevertheless, I’m confident that they are their own worst enemies on these issues, so perhaps there is nothing at all that we should do except let them shoot themselves in the foot with their policy agenda, over and over.

But improving government efficiency is a good idea, in and of itself. Trump is the wrong man to pull it off, by a long shot, but it’s something that should be taken seriously once we have an actual serious President.