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Feature 03.01.2022 5 minutes

Breaking the Grip of H.R.

Cutting Red Tape

The federal government is more answerable to Human Resources than to the American people.

It has long been a fantasy of business-minded Republicans that the federal government could be remade in the image of a well-functioning business and become a model of efficiency and customer service. In truth, the only sort of “business” that the federal government could ever be like is one that is severed from the profit motive, makes its own rules about what it can and cannot do, makes recourse to seemingly endless debt financing, and operates as a monopoly. In other words, it could perhaps hope to function about as effectively as a well-managed Soviet grocery store.

Nathan Uldricks’s “The Importance of Management Policy in American Governance” resides within this business-oriented school of thought. Uldricks begins by criticizing the left-leaning nature of President Biden’s Presidential Management Agenda Vision, but he doesn’t note that the President’s Management Agenda (which Biden will release soon) doesn’t change much across administrations, because it is largely written by and for career staff at the Office of Management and Budget. Uldricks then writes that we need “a fully defined management reform agenda,” buttressed by “thorough research and specific policy white papers and playbooks” and reflecting “scholarship that offers transformational ideas to improve operations.” This, he says, can finally make the federal government more “efficient” (a notion he repeatedly emphasizes) and “restore trust and confidence in the nation’s capital.”

But the key problem we face is not the federal government’s inefficiency. Outside of completing specific tasks in specific contexts—keeping the trains running on time in Switzerland, for example—government will never be a model of efficiency. More often, government systems will function more like the trains in France. The major problem is not how smoothly the government accomplishes its chosen tasks, but which tasks it chooses to accomplish at all. Entities with no opportunity or incentive to make profits lack motivation to do what their customers want, rather than what they want (take academia as an example).

And so aside from its excessive size and scope, perhaps the biggest problem with the federal government, particularly the executive branch, is that federal employees are too often ideologically aligned with one another, but not with the American people. Human Resources departments have the federal government in a choke-hold, and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which is dominated by career staff, is too powerful.

This is not to blame all of the federal government’s woes on career employees. In fact, many of the most capable and dedicated people I’ve worked with in the federal government have been career employees. When I worked at the Department of Health and Human Services under Secretary Tom Price, moreover, the political appointees were the biggest problem, as many of them were incompetent and weren’t the least bit committed to the genuine repeal and replacement of Obamacare. Still, as is widely known, most federal employees are left-leaning. As such, they are susceptible to groupthink and inclined to view left-leaning advocacy groups and “stakeholders,” rather than the American citizenry, as their true customers.

Human Resources departments are to blame for much of this problem. Unless an agency or office has “direct-hire authority,” which is only infrequently granted, it is nearly impossible to hire a federal employee out of the private sector. As the director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the statistical arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, I once submitted a list of 30 or so applicants for a preliminary interview. H.R. replied that we couldn’t interview any of those applicants, because they were all from the private sector. Such decrees clearly affect the long-term composition of the federal workforce.

An exception of sorts to the difficulty in hiring applicants from the private sector is disabled applicants, who have an easier time getting interviewed for federal career jobs, under Schedule A Hiring Authority. This includes alcoholics or former drug addicts (provided they’re not currently using anything illegal), who qualify as “disabled” because of their history of substance abuse and may therefore get to jump in front of their more historically sober competitors. Applicants who can provide documentation of “morbid obesity,” “irritable bowel syndrome,” or a “psychiatric disorder” also get a leg up. Only the federal government could come up with rules like this.

Two problems therefore need to be addressed in this vein: One, the federal hiring rules are insane and must be revised—or, at the least, “direct-hire authority,” which largely keeps H.R. at bay, should be granted much more broadly. Two, since some (most?) federal H.R. departments seem to consider their primary goal to be preventing political appointees (at least in conservative-leaning administrations) from exercising independent authority or judgment—which H.R. thinks should instead be exercised by H.R.—presidential administrations need to give political appointees easy access to like-minded allies who know the byzantine H.R. rules as well as the H.R. directors and can provide advice and counsel on how to get around the roadblocks that H.R. will inevitably put up. As BJS director, I generally managed to get around these roadblocks, but it wasted a great deal of time and energy and detracted from other endeavors.

In addition to H.R., another entity that wields too much power is OMB. While OMB is technically part of “the White House” (not the building itself but the wider White House complex), it is dominated by career employees. If the American people knew how much power the comparatively obscure OMB wields, they would be both surprised and concerned. OMB has its tentacles in nearly everything (and some want to expand its reach even further).

Even conservative administrations often willingly hand over the keys to OMB. It is quite attractive for administrations to try to centralize and consolidate power—leftist administrations generally believe in centralization, and conservative administrations think they can use OMB to keep the various executive departments in line. More commonly, this results in OMB career staff attempting to control the executive departments’ political appointees, to the administration’s detriment. And since left-leaning political appointees are more apt to see eye-to-eye with OMB career staff, this isn’t a matter that affects all administrations equally.

When I was director of BJS, I always told my staff that, when we wrote our statistical reports, our primary intended audience was not criminal-justice academics, policy advocates, or any other sorts of “experts.” Rather, our primary intended audience was the intellectually engaged, everyday American citizen. For it is the citizenry that the government is there to serve.

Uldricks understands this, and his proposals are presented in this spirit. He recognizes that much of the federal executive branch is managed by distant and opaque cabals of bureaucrats. But his proposals for alleviating this problem focus on the seemingly illusory goal of greatly increasing the federal government’s efficiency. He neglects the more important—perhaps more achievable—goal of keeping career employees in H.R. and OMB from stymying political appointees and (especially in H.R.’s case) blocking the cultivation of greater diversity of thought in the federal workforce. The solution to a bloated federal government is not to pretend that it can be made into a sleek instrument of commercial efficiency. It is to limit the government’s role and—short of that—to limit the roles of those who undermine the efforts of political appointees to make the best, most prudent judgments they can in individual circumstances.

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