The White House is betting that a tack toward efficiency in its new executive order to reorganize the executive branch will help improve the slumping morale of the federal workforce.
Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said in an April 11 press conference that the plan — which will include workforce reductions and the possible shuffling of agency functions — would seek to provide incentives for federal employees who excel in their roles and not those who come up short in providing public service.
"One of the frustrations that government workers have is that we don’t reward those who do a really good job and we don’t punish those who do a lousy job," he said. "Imagine what it’s like working in an organization where you do a really nice job and you don’t get rewarded for it, that you don’t even get acknowledged for that.
"What kind of morale would that create within that particular organization? That’s one of the things we’ve asked the agencies to look at: how do you restructure your personnel policies in order to point out people who are doing a great job and figuring out a way to get folks who are not delivering money for the taxpayers, get them onboard with whatever policy you are trying to achieve?"
But the Trump administration’s vision could face a tough sell with federal employees, who have seen their employment engagement scores inch up gradually in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey over the past three years, while their pay raises have not advanced much further.
The White House is seeking to reverse at least one of those problems immediately, with Mulvaney confirming that OMB will sign off on a 1.9 percent pay raise for fiscal 2018, the second-highest pay bump in since 2014.
As for morale, the answer isn’t so clear-cut.
While some agencies — like the departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs — will likely see personnel increases, others like the Environmental Protection Agency could see dramatic reductions.
The reactions from federal employee unions ran the gamut of cautious optimism to unsettled concern.
"Requiring government agencies to draft detailed plans for downsizing based on a budget that has yet to be released, let alone gone through the congressional appropriations process, is a wasteful exercise," said National Treasury Employees Union National President Tony Reardon said in a statement.
"Taxpayers deserve federal agencies that can fully deliver services that they rely on every day. This is not how we effectively provide food safety, innovative medical breakthroughs, strong borders and the thousands of other services federal employees undertake each day."
Other groups like the Senior Executives Association and the American Federation of Government Employees saw positives in the executive order in terms of innovating agency operations, though they were measured in their responses.
AFGE National President J. David Cox did praise Mulvaney’s plans to possibly reduce the layers of management as a way to improve operational efficiency, but derided the cuts to EPA and other agencies.
"Reducing the federal workforce through attrition may seem like a relatively humane approach, but its operational effect can be devastating," Cox said in a statement.
"The idea that all or most federal jobs are somehow unnecessary or redundant, or should be producing a profit for politically well-connected contractors has no place in any serious plan for government efficiency."
SEA President Bill Valdez — who organization has lobbied for civil service reform — applauded the order as an opportunity to carry out those efforts.
"This memorandum is a huge opportunity for our country. It will cause us all to ask the tough but important questions about exactly what we want government doing, and how we should structure government to best accomplish those missions," he said in a statement. "The government, as presently structured, is not designed to meet the dynamic demands of the 21st Century."
But after the initial splash of the order’s unveiling, there will still be a lot of discussion between the White House, Congress and the agencies, said National Academy of Public Administration President Terry Gerton.
"If you are a federal employee, the first thing you want to do is read this and get real familiar with the parameters," she said, "but there’s no need to panic."