How the White House could have improved its reform measures

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Presidential administrations generally like to try and reform some part of the Executive Branch or another. And looking at reform efforts by the Trump administration, the Government Accountability Office finds it should have employed what auditors consider key practices for effective reform. GAO’s Director of Homeland Security and Justice issues, Triana McNeil, joined  Federal Drive with Tom Temin for a review.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. McNeil, good to have you back.

Triana McNeil: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

Tom Temin: So principally, you looked at the transfer of the background investigations apparatus – and that’s a complicated one – from OPM, the civilian side of the executive branch to DoD. That’s a done deal now, and what’s your assessment of how it went?

Triana McNeil: So based on the information that we analyzed, we made no recommendations. We found no areas for improvement that required us to make any recommendations. We definitely feel that this was of all the reforms we reviewed, one that was in better shape.

Tom Temin: And what are the principal practices? They did do, then?

Triana McNeil: So we looked at a number of key reform practices. When we assessed the transfer of background investigations from OPM to DoD. We looked at did they establish goals and outcomes? And we found that DoD had established goals and had a dashboard with timeframes and measures to track implementation progress. For example, we looked at the extent to which they involve employees and key stakeholders. We found, Yes, they had. OMB and DoD had conducted outreach to Congress, employees, other stakeholders through congressional briefings and town halls, as well as email correspondence to affected staff among other things.

Tom Temin: All right, let’s move to the one on solving the cyber security workforce shortage that was a big reskilling effort and so on. But you found that there was a couple of pieces missing that might have made that, or I guess it’s an ongoing effort really, to keep that one going?

Triana McNeil: It is. This is an issue that we have had on the high risk list since 1997. In 1997, we added it because we needed the federal government to focus on securing information. And then we have subsequently added some issues to that area in 2003, protecting critical cyber infrastructure in 2015, protection of personal identity information. So this is one where we identified a number of deficiencies, and we made five recommendations for improvement to make sure that this reform is implemented consistent with key reform practices. So I’ll just throw out a couple of examples. OMB and DHS, they have not developed a governmentwide set of goals and outcomes for what they want to accomplish with this. And I outlined how long this has been on the high risk list, and the key issues that we have been focusing on since 1997. So they really do need to have clear goals and outcomes for this reform effort. And we also want to know how it’s tied to these high risk issues that are long standing. And we found that they had not demonstrated how this reform proposal would address those challenges that I outlined earlier.

Tom Temin: Yeah, so they’ve got some work to do there. And then there was the Government Effectiveness Advanced Research Center (GEAR), and they have awards every year and so on, on people doing better government management. But you weren’t totally thrilled with that whole thing was structured, set up.

Triana McNeil: This one, this is a new initiative. OMB wanted to develop a vehicle for applied research that would improve government operations as well as improve decision making. It’s intended to be a public-private partnership, but it is not yet formally established. So they set out this GEAR center challenge to try to identify, what could this be? What are some ways we could use this GEAR center once we do set it up,?They awarded three projects totaling 300,000 each. And those projects involve, for example, using data sets to measure impact of federal programs. One of the other ones was find ways to better train federal employees to use data to make decisions. And so the idea of the GEAR center, that’s pretty clear. There’s an appropriate role for the federal government. So we gave them you know, yes, approved you follow that key reform practice. This is – fits the appropriate role for the federal government. But again, this is one where OMB will need to fully assess the costs and benefits of how they plan to operate the center. And they need to establish clear goals and outcomes. They have initiated a process but we really need to see those laid out. They have involved employees and key stakeholders. I will say that, but we do look for more information on how they plan to monitor this new GEAR center once they do set – stand it up.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Triana McNeil. She’s director of Homeland Security and Justice issues at the Government Accountability Office. And kind of the big, I guess, gorilla in the room is the off and on effort of trying to move the Office of Personnel Management and merge it with GSA essentially, after having removed the security clearances. What did you find on that one? That’s a little later in the report. Is that still on, cooking? Have they given up on that one? What’s the status there?

Triana McNeil: So based on the information that we have gathered, most recently, this is one where it’s unclear to us if they plan to continue to move forward with this. We found a number of issues related to this reform. They have started to think about some draft goals and metrics, for example. What are you trying to achieve with this reorganization of OPM? But they have not assessed costs and benefits of this reform. So that’s really a key and that’s a really important step early on, that they just haven’t been able to demonstrate. They have struggled with engaging with the employees that would be affected with the Congress, with other key stakeholders and making sure that they incorporate some of that feedback into this reform effort. We also found that while OPM and GSA were aware of GAO’s relevant high risk area on strategic human capital management, they didn’t consider all of the challenges at GSA and incorporate any of that into this planned reform effort. So there’s a number of issues that we identified here. We didn’t make any recommendations again, because it wasn’t clear to us that they were going to continue to implement this reform.

Tom Temin: Got it, and when you present these reports, I know they go to Congress, but does the administrator and – you give the administrations a chance to respond, what did they say generally about what you found, especially with, say, the GEAR Center, where you did have a lot of recommendations, and also on the solving the cybersecurity workforce shortage?

Triana McNeil: So a part of our process, as you well know, but I’ll educate listeners that they’re new to GAO – whenever we do an audit or review of an agency’s programs or efforts, we allow them an opportunity to comment on the report findings and we engage with them along the course of audit as well. We provided a draft of this report for review and comment to the directors of OMB, OPM, secretary of DoD, acting secretary of Homeland Security, and the administrator of GSA. OMB did not comment on the report. So we haven’t heard from them. And as you know, they are playing a prominent role in all of these reforms. Homeland Security and DoD provided technical clarifications, but did not provide any substantive comments and OPM and GSA did not provide any comments at all. So usually, if agencies disagree with our findings, or have an issue with any recommendations were making, they would note that during this agency comment period and we received none.

Tom Temin: Do you think the difference in the effectiveness of these efforts, there’s one variable and that is one of them involved the Defense Department. And knowing the import was what it was taking on, Defense tends to plan pretty carefully. Do you think that’s a variable here that matters?

Triana McNeil: I think it could be an important variable. I think who you have involved in the reform, engaging with the different stakeholders, having clear implementation plans, having a team fully stood up and ready to operationalize that plan – those are all important elements. I will say, this moving background investigations from OPM to DoD, this has been something that GAO has been involved in for quite a while. So this is not a new reform, like the OPM reorganization, for example, or establishing the GEAR center. And DoD has been engaging with GAO on a number of fronts as it relates to these issues for years now. So this is one where I think they had made quite a bit of progress even before this was an official reform.

Tom Temin: Triana McNeil is director of Homeland Security and Justice issues at the Government Accountability Office. As always, thanks so much.

Triana McNeil:  Thank you for having me.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview along with a link to her report at Hear the Federal Drive on demand. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts or Podcastone.

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