Serving as both the deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget and the acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, Margaret Weichert stands at a unique intersection for improving agency operations, with a particular focus on impacts to the federal workforce. Weichert sat down with Federal Times to discuss the Trump administration’s government reform plan, cooperation with Congress and the future of the civil service.
Tell me a little bit about the pillars of the President’s Management Agenda that lean on workforce.
THEY BASICALLY ALL DO. In order to make [information technology] change happen, you need the people who are knowledgeable about, what is the technology architecture required? What are the change management skills needed to run an effective program?
We have financed a lot of IT changes that haven’t succeeded. Frequently, the reason they haven’t succeeded is because we didn’t think about the people.
We’ve got a lot of thought in government about project management — job codes and competencies — but we don’t talk much about change management, which is a competency in and of itself. Frankly, a lot of consulting firms have entire practices dedicated to the people components of major technology change initiatives. Those are critical skills in terms of modernizing service aspects of what we do.
If we want to automate health records, for example, in order to get better service for veterans and better outcomes for those veterans, we need to not only have people who can implement that technology project, but we also need to bring the doctors, nurses and the techs who use that data up.
Because we haven’t brought the people into that change. What does the paper-based system have? You frequently see places where you’ve got a new flashy IT system running alongside somebody’s paper, separate system. You ask the person who is using that separate system, “Why do you do that?”
“Because the technology doesn’t do these five critical things that I used to do in this handwritten way,” [they say]. “I’m doing this because I don’t want the patient to suffer. I don’t want the mission to suffer.”
What do you think are some of the near-term changes that could be affected in one to two years, and some of the longer term that may take five to eight years?
WE DID A LOT of things on the hiring over the last year to get critical skills into government around cyber, STEM careers, economists. I think there are things we want to do in some other areas, including law enforcement jobs, we want to look at improvements there.
Performance management is an area where we’re looking very closely at things that are in the regulatory realm: areas where there are perhaps artificial barriers to rewarding people, limits imposed on how much they could be given a bonus — or how bonuses are distributed between, let’s say, SES and our senior technical leaders, the SL cadre of folks.
In each one of those things we’ll look for opportunities that are regulatory in nature, because, presumably, we’ll be able to do those faster.
But, to the extent many of these regulatory changes are also hooked into some elements of statute, we will highlight what those are, and we may even come up with legislative proposals.
Even if they don’t pass, that leads a signpost for future action that hopefully could clear away, if there’s arcane, non-useful parts of the statute that could be cleaned up. Even if we’re not able to clean them up, I think there will be a lot of things where we’ll be elucidating areas in the statutory code base that create problems. But we’ll also be looking for regulatory opportunities.
Have you figured out how much leeway you have in, say, the General Schedule system to be able to make changes without legislative involvement?
FUNDAMENTALLY, PART OF THE reason we have such a complex set of structures is because people have layered on the regs on top of this very complicated code, the statutory basis, whether it’s Title V or other titles.
We need to balance that. We want to identify those areas. But, if you have to go through sort of unnatural contortions, the question will always be, “Are we adding complexity that makes it even harder to do the structural reform over time?” That’s something we’ve got to constantly balance.
You and the administration at large have talked about reforming the federal compensation and management system, which I think has caused some anxiety for some feds. I wanted to ask if you can provide any clarity or a long-term picture of why this might be a good thing for them? What they could look forward to under your plan?
THE BALANCING ACT, AGAIN, it comes back to mission, service and stewardship.
We have very widely publicized fiscal challenges. The need to be better stewards of taxpayer resources is imperative. It hasn’t stopped our mission yet — I count on the American ingenuity to ensure that it doesn’t in the future — but we are continuing to ask more in terms of mission. We don’t end programs just because, financially, they’re challenging.
In the private sector, people reprioritize resources all the time. But, in government, there’s always a constituency for every program, so it’s very hard to cut full programs.
The only way to balance — all of these competing needs without ending programs that people care about — is to do more with what you already have, because we will continue to be asked to do more.
We will need to do it with a smaller workforce. The reason we need to do it with a smaller workforce is because baby boomers are going to retire; that is inevitable. It frankly hasn’t happened at the rates I expected it to, because more feds are working long into their retirement-eligible period, but that will tail off at some point.
We also need to be able to attract young people into government. Young people don’t come into careers today with the expectation that they will work at the same job for the same employer for the next 30 years. We need to have the flexibility, not only in the core pay, but in broader benefits programs.
We have a pilot in the budget that was just released for a defined contribution pilot that would apply to limited term appointments. I have got a number of those working for me at the U.S. Digital Service. These folks come in for a period of one to maybe four years; they don’t qualify for [the Federal Employee Retirement System].
If they leave before they are retirement eligible, they don't get this benefit.
In the end, we are still able to attract people, because they’re attracted to the mission, but, overall, we need to be able to be more flexible and respond to the changing nature of the way rewards and recognition work in the broader economy.
Does that require a closer relationship with some of the organizations that have maybe had a testier relationship with this administration like federal employee unions?
THE REALITY OF THE collective bargaining arena is there are always going to be some differences of opinion. When they play out in the press, they’re going to have a very sort of polarized narrative associated with them.
I believe there are absolutely multiple areas of common ground with our unions. I personally spend, probably, at least once a week talking to folks in our formal local union structure. I’ve had some conversations with national union leaders and am in the process of putting in place a regular cadence with a couple of them to talk about and explore areas of common ground.
Rescaling is absolutely an area, I think, of common ground. I think, looking at the combination of people and place is an area of common ground.
We had a great example here with our local union: we're a leading telework employer. When you look around our building, there is a lot of empty space, and one of our units in recent years worked very closely with the union to reconfigure this space to make better use of our real estate and lower our overall footprint, while maintaining employee engagement and morale.
That's an area, I think, we have a lot where we can work together. There are a number of places we're doing that with the range of unions.
You’ve mentioned in the past how separating the power of the purse versus power of management in different branches makes things challenging. But you also mentioned that is still an essential part of the way the government works. What avenues are you guys seeing to make that separation easier for the management of federal government?
I THINK THE NATURE of the timing of funding for major change initiatives is critical. The more we link change initiatives to artificial, one year budget cycles, the less success we will have.
I would say that, categorically, change and particularly transformational change, I have never seen take less than two to three years. Particularly if there’s a profound IT component to it, two to three years is an optimistic timeline for a major change. We need funding mechanisms that are acknowledging that, and also not, again managing by statute.
It is utterly appropriate, if Congress authorizes money and apportions money, they should be able to have oversight of that money. But, oversight in the form of elements in the actual statute is really problematic.
I’ll give you some examples. There are any number of reporting requirements that are statutorily mandated in such specificity that they include the actual table delineation and, literally, what the reporting structure needs to be.
In many cases, that leads to reporting that then gets utterly ignored, because it’s reporting on things that are no longer relevant, or it’s reporting in a way that is artificial to how the data is actually housed in the system.
Particularly, when lawyers try to put things in a statute that really will evolve over time, you’re tying the hands of managers to do what is the right thing. We have to figure out, how do we create oversight principles, frameworks and tools that allow legislators to interrogate, and even be almost more self-served with the tools?
If you create a capability that requires oversight, I think it would be utterly appropriate to say, "You need to have some type of interface that allows Congress to be able to access data of this sort."
But, to specify a particular report that needs to be run in this particular framework on this particular time table means you’re going to set up a very purpose-built, narrow solution that actually doesn’t get to the heart of what you’re trying to do.
How do you affect that change? Do you have to just convince a critical mass of Congress members?
I THINK THE MORE we continue to show the data of how these problems link to failed projects, failed programs, failed mission, and failed service. Again, I use mission service stewardship as kind of continual mantras, because those are things that Congress understands. Because the American people understand that.
I need to tie the IT narrative, the data narrative and the people narrative to those three things, because those are the things that are politically relevant. Finding a voice and language that can boil down the complexity of an IT change program to say, “This means veterans aren’t getting the best care; their health records are getting lost and not found for months, thereby, meaning that the wrong leg gets amputated.”
This is how we should talk about what we do in mission support areas. We should showcase, how does it affect the astronaut, or the farmer, or the soldier and the war fighter? And use the data to support that story.
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.