President Trump's 'Substitute Teacher' Problem

The White House’s slow pace of hiring may hamper its dream of reorganizing—and shrinking—the federal government, says Max Stier of the Partnership for Public Service.

Alex Brandon / AP

President Trump, like most of his recent predecessors, wants to reorganize the federal government, to make it leaner and meaner and more effective at serving its customers, the American people.

The White House announced last week that it would spend the next several months soliciting ideas from the general public, academic and industry experts, and most importantly, the men and women who work in the government about how best to do this. A big goal of the effort is to cut out duplicative or wasteful programs, as well as to reduce the civilian workforce in line with the dramatic cuts Trump is demanding in his first budget proposal. There’s even a website where regular citizens can tell the president what departments, agencies, or programs they want to see reformed or flat-out eliminated—be it the CIA, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, or even the White House itself.

While previous presidents have tried, and often failed, to streamline the government, one advantage Trump has is that he is starting earlier in his presidency and has made this overhaul a higher priority than it has been in the past. He’s also tasked two of his closest aides, son-in-law Jared Kushner and budget director Mick Mulvaney, with leading the effort, increasing the likelihood that it will stay near the top of his agenda.

“The types of changes that need to take place in the government aren’t ones that get done with the stroke of the pen. They’re the proverbial long march,” said Max Stier, the president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service. “So the idea that the Trump team has begun within its first 100 days a serious reform effort I think is really important, because they have a better opportunity to actually see something through.”

Stier is a leading advocate for management reform in the government and has advised presidential transitions, including the Trump team. He spoke to me by phone last week to discuss the administration’s plan for reorganizing the government and the challenges it will face along the way, including the need to coax Congress into action and partner with career employees who might well view the effort as a threat to their livelihood.

A major obstacle for the new president, Stier said, is that he’s embarking on this Herculean challenge even before he’s installed most of his government in the first place. Trump is far behind his recent predecessors in filling the dozens of crucial posts beyond his senior Cabinet. Two of his Cabinet secretaries are still awaiting Senate confirmation, and just one deputy secretary has started her job. Most of the other assistant secretary and agency director positions have no nominees at all. The people performing those jobs for the time being are either temporary officials installed by the Trump transition team or career civil servants.

Stier likens them to “substitute teachers” who lack both the designated authority and the self-assurance to effect change and implement the president’s agenda. “They certainly don't have longterm tenure, and as a result, they themselves typically don’t take on the hard challenges or view the choices that they’re making from that longterm lens,” he said. “And the people around them understand that any choice they make may be changed by the full-time leadership as it comes in.”

Ideally, Trump would have his team on the ground before he tries to overhaul the government. But, Stier said, with a project this immense and political capital already waning, he doesn’t have the luxury of waiting. “The clock is not their friend,” he said.

What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.

Russell Berman: The Trump administration wants to reorganize the federal government and reduce wasteful or duplicative functions. How is what President Trump wants to do any different from what recent previous president have sought to do?

Max Stier: What’s different here in my view is that first, the seriousness and how early the Trump administration has come to this that’s very important. One of the critical elements to understand is that the types of changes that need to take place in the government aren’t ones that get done with the stroke of the pen. They’re the proverbial long march. They take real time, and one of the challenges that prior efforts have run into is the clock has run out before the administration’s actually been able to achieve all or most of the benefit that was pursued. And so the idea that the Trump team has begun, within its first 100 days, a serious reform effort I think is really important, because they have a better opportunity to actually see something through.

The second element that I think is fundamental and not unique, but nonetheless is unusual, is that you have top-level White House commitment and prioritization to this effort. And again, what you’ve seen in prior administrations is work in this field, but it doesn’t often involve the very top of the house. These changes are difficult. They run contrary to the norms in Washington, where policy is king, and getting the policy done effectively gets second or third shrift. What we have here is a commitment from a very important actor, Jared Kushner, the team he’s put together, the [Office of Management and Budget] director Mick Mulvaney. You have at least at the front end a stated commitment at the very top of the house to focus on this and make it a priority. And it won’t get done otherwise.

The third element is that it appears to be an effort to align the government reform effort with the budget effort and the resources that will be necessary to make this real. That is fundamental as well. If you imagine the management changes as taking place in a vacuum, you won't get them done, and even if you get something done, it won't become integral to the actual operations of government. And so the idea of trying to create a change process that pulls together priorities, budget, and human resources to me is very critical.

What are the risks here? One is that the administration can’t do this alone. It’s in essence like dancing alone. They have to have Congress as an active partner. Congress needs to be involved not just at the back end but at the very front end too, and they have to play. If you think about prior changes that don't occur, not only the legislative requirements of congressional involvement, it's also the budgetary engagement, and it's important that the changes get reflected in the way Congress actually operates as well. So as an example, with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, every recommendation of the 9/11 Commission was completed except for one, and that was Congress aligning itself to the new executive branch organizational chart. And because they didn’t do it, you have a Department of Homeland Security leadership that responds to 80-plus committees and subcommittees in Congress, and that creates a lot of wasted time and confusion.

Berman: What are the one or two ways that the Trump administration and the president himself is in a better position to make this happen, to be successful in this effort, and what are one or two ways in which it is in a worse position?

Stier: I think the fact that they are coming to this at the very beginning and that they're taking it seriously from the perspective of having the top-of-the-house commitment to it is how they are setting themselves up for a better chance of success.

There are ways in which the Trump administration is going to be challenged. One of the more fundamental is that they don’t yet have very many of their leaders in place across the government. The natural leaders of this effort will be the deputy secretaries of the various agencies, and they so far have only one confirmed and in place. So that presents a real challenge for them.

They will need to engage the career workforce in a serious way to make this happen, and it will have to be viewed as a partnership between the political leadership and the career workforce. We have yet to see whether they understand that. The truth is that the people who know best what kinds of changes need to take place are the people who live, breathe, and sweat blood and tears over trying to make our government work better. And they’re the ones that are harmed in many ways most by some of the inefficiencies in government. And they will know best how to make the changes happen, so engaging them successfully will be critical.

Berman: Do you get the sense that they're doing it, or are they going to be further challenged because some of their rhetoric has been seen as antagonizing the civilian workforce?

Stier: There is an enormous reservoir of goodwill that is still there among the civil servants. They view their job as serving the American public through the political leadership. I think that still remains. It can be squandered, but I think that the Trump team has the opportunity of really engaging them.

I think bluntly that the plan itself, the ‘plan for the plan,’ is the product of many hands, and critical in that mix has been the career team at the Office of Management and Budget that has helped put this together. So I think that's a good example where they had the expertise in-house, and they used it. And they need to do that at the agency level as well if they're going to be successful.

Berman: One of the headline goals of the effort is to reduce the size of the civilian workforce. There’s a lot of talk about reduction, elimination of programs, staffing etc. Is this the correct goal, and if not, why not?

Stier: That’s very important, too. To the extent the effort here around the workforce itself is looking at workforce size in order to achieve the stated priorities, the goals of the administration and our government, then that makes sense. If the workforce reductions become a goal in and of themselves, then I think we lose—both in terms of the stated outcome, better government, and in terms of the engagement of the federal workforce itself. Public servants in large numbers—and there’s always going to be some exception—are there because they care about trying to make the American government serve the public better, and there are a lot of ways in which they're going to have ideas that they want to see implemented. As long as they understand that the goal is to produce better service for the public even if it means that there are going to be reductions in the jobs that exist for them, they will still support it and try to make it happen. If the goal itself is just to get rid of the jobs, then I think it’s a lose-lose proposition for everybody.

Berman: What kinds of changes can the Trump administration on its own, and what will require acts of Congress to carry out?

Stier: Whenever there’s a change that’s going to require significant reorganization of agencies—structural reorganizations, getting rids of parts or wholes of organizations, merging them, things that require movement of money or more money to achieve—they’re going to officially require congressional action. But the broader point is that even in areas that you might not need direct congressional approval or funding that Congress has specifically for an activity, it's still wise to engage Congress in this reform effort. Because they're going to have interest and can either prevent or facilitate changes even where they wouldn't otherwise have to be involved. One example that comes to mind is an agency that was trying to consolidate a bunch of its field offices, and there were a lot of congressional pushback, and ultimately Congress prevented it from happening because there were individual members of Congress who were concerned about the loss of job or investments in their districts.

Berman: We know that if Congress doesn’t appropriate the money, the government can’t spend it. But does it work in reverse? If Congress wants to appropriate money for programs or for agencies, can the government choose not to spend it, or are they required to spend what Congress gives them?

Stier: They don’t have to spend everything that Congress gives them, and in fact, the agencies often try to spend the money that Congress gives them because they’re worried that by not doing so, it will look like they don't actually need the money. So there are some perverse incentives that exist out there.

Congress can tell the executive what it should be doing, what it should be trying to achieve, and it can then appropriate money in order to do it, but the administration doesn't have to spend all that money to make that happen.

Berman: So as we’ve talked about, they are behind in staffing up below the Cabinet level, both in the Senate-confirmed positions and in the ones that don't require Senate confirmation. Is it putting the cart before the horse? How can they expect to get good recommendations for reorganizing the government before they actually have people in these agencies seeing how they are functioning?

Stier: In an ideal world, they would have their team on the ground. The clock is not their friend, nor is it ever any new administration’s friend. The time goes fast. The demands are overwhelming. To make changes in the way the government is managed requires you to be smart about using every minute you have. So I don't think they have the luxury of waiting to have their entire team in place before they move forward on these issues.

The content and the substance are much more likely to be coming from the career team than anywhere else. They understand what the problems are and what the best solutions are, what's been tried in the past, what's failed and why, and what's worked better than anybody else.

Berman: In its appointments process, in what areas would you give the Trump administration the best grades—where have they excelled the most—and where have they stumbled the most?

Stier: Well, they're behind. To be clear, no prior administration has done this process well. And right now, the Trump administration is further behind even these historical norms. I think that's become even more problematic because the world is a more dangerous and faster-moving place, and part of what you need is a team that can react effectively and quickly in this very challenging environment. So they moved quickly on getting a Cabinet named, but beyond that, they're falling behind the historical norms, which in my view are themselves not good enough.

Berman: Just because political appointees aren’t in these agencies doesn’t mean they are a sea of empty desks. There are temporary people and career civil servants staffing the government. What is the practical difference? Beyond the simple numbers, why does it matter that the political appointees aren’t in place?

Stier: My view is that the acting individuals, no matter how capable they are, are akin to the substitute teacher. When I say substitute teacher, we all have that vision of somebody who isn't treated super well by the class because they don't view that the substitute teacher has real authority. And they certainly don't have longterm tenure, and as a result, they themselves typically don't take on the hard challenges or view the choices that they’re making from that longterm lens. And the people around them understand that any choice they make may be changed by the full-time leadership as it comes in. Their teammates, the other people around them, don't invest in them to create a smooth functioning team.

So how does that translate to what we see in government? In my view, what ends up happening when you're dealing with the acting officials is sort of twofold: One, you typically don't get the kind of intense and effective focus on an agenda. So for a president that means that they are less likely to move forward with the things that they committed to doing with any effectiveness. Then on the reactive side, if any when something goes wrong, when there's a crisis, it's hard for those individuals to actually perform at the level that you want them to. Both individually and then collectively. So there’s a real risk.