With an election in the air, government still needs to operate

Don Kettl, a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, offered his take on the most important administrative and governance topi...

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Strange as the election has been the regular old government where you live still has to carry on. For one take on the most important administrative and governance topics ahead, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to longtime analyst, now a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Don Kettl.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Don, good to have you back.

Don Kettl: It is great to be with you, Tom.

Tom Temin: All right, so everything was in the air, and we’re gonna have divided government one way or the other, it looks like in the next four years, maybe divided along different fault lines, but still divided. What are the challenges ahead that have got to be dealt with, regardless of who ends up where?

Don Kettl: Well, there’s a big long laundry list of things that for the most part have been passed over in the campaign, I think. One, that’s certain to be a super hot issue in the course of the transition, and then will carry over is the future of the federal workforce. There not only is President Trump’s Schedule F executive order, which could have massive changes in the nature of the merit system, no matter what it is, that happens, he’s going to be trying to push as much of that through as he possibly can, between now and January. And those issues are going to hang over into not only the next year, but for a long time afterwards. Because there’s a long-standing series of battles that are at the core: Should there be merit? How can we hire people? Should we be making it easier to fire people? And most importantly, how can we match the federal workforce to the kinds of the skills that it’s going to need to be able to do the job. So that’s one big one. A second is the future of government performance. And the question about what the next president’s management agenda is going to look like, and the kind of guidance that are going to be going out to federal employees. And the third is this really interesting new strategy, trying to focus more on the customer experience, and the efforts to try to transform the way in which government and especially government employees connect with the people that they serve. And those are big issues that are out there, and are going to be carrying over into January, February and beyond – beyond any shadow of a doubt.

Tom Temin: And there’s also a couple of practical issues at hand, and that is two agencies with very large populations of employees that are unionized have been unable to reach any kind of an agreement on a new bargaining agreement. I’m thinking of Social Security and Veterans Affairs. Trump or Biden, that one needs to be, I think, gotten over the line one way or the other.

Don Kettl: Well, exactly. And there are two things that are coming on here. One is the difficulty of trying to find agreement with the – between the bargaining units, and the administration, period. And that’s going to be a huge issue no matter what. But in the background too is the decision on election day that for the most part escaped a lot of scrutiny, which was on the organization before administrative law judges. There’s a much larger set of issues that are put to about: The ability of federal employees to organize, the power to bargain, and the kind of bargaining power and authority that they’re going to have. And those issues are part of a very long stream that’s been developing over time, that will be another one of those big issues that are going to carry over for sure. Because that’s going to be unresolved. And the power, the role of the unions is something that is under incredible transition right now.

Tom Temin: What is the status of the the administrative law judges? They’ve been battling now in court and with the Federal Labor Relations Authority for some time now?

Don Kettl: Well they have and they’ve lost the the bargaining power that they had before. Interesting open question is whether or not that’s going to be extended even further. And more importantly, whether or not that might have broader implications for the ability of other federal employees to organize, and to bargain over work conditions and salaries. So those issues are going to be enormous.

Tom Temin: And I would say too that for the workforce writ large that needs specialized skills, like cybersecurity or acquisition – right, left, Democrat, Republican I think they both realize the need to upskill these types of people. But maybe just have totally different ways of going about it.

Don Kettl: For sure because we’ve done a pretty terrible job of being able to reconfigure the federal workforce for some of the the big challenges and information technology on information management, on contracting and accounting, but especially on the issues having to deal with information and data. The federal government is just far beyond behind the private sector and the ability to be able to recruit compared to the big companies that are in the process now of trying to find ways of really regalvanizing themselves. And so if the federal government finds itself both trying to compete for that kind of talent, at the same time to find ourselves bargaining with private sector companies within the contracts, government needs to be able to be on the same playing field. And right now that is not the case.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Don Kettl, professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. And there’s also some lingering, maybe bad feelings about the OPM-GSA merger – Office of Personnel Management and General Services Administration and it seems like some oil on the waters there is going to be needed, again, regardless.

Don Kettl: Yeah, absolutely, that’s going to have to happen regardless. In the last days of the campaign, the Trump administration gave up officially on the plan to try to split up the Office of Personnel Management and move most of the functions into the GSA. Having given up now the question is, well, what’s left with OPM? What is it that we need to carry through on? What should be the relationship between OPM and the Executive Office of the President and especially the Domestic Policy Council? What is it that we want an Office of Personnel Management to do? And in particular, in the context of the Schedule F battles, there’s going to be an issue of first, do we make it easier to hire or fire? Secondly, who’s going to be in charge of trying to set the policy for the agencies? And third, and maybe even most important, what’s Strategic Workforce Planning going to look like for the federal government? We’re just talking about the problems of information, for example. Who’s in charge of helping the federal government think about those issues? And is there going to be resting purely on the agencies? Or is there going to be some central conversation, try to make sure the federal government can tackle those enormous federal workforce challenges?

Tom Temin: And I want to get back to the Schedule F question, because administration’s take entirely different approaches to rulemaking. And both, say the Obama administration and the Trump administration launched initiatives to try to clear out old regulations and unneeded regulations, but it’s fair to say they were coming from very different places, and probably had very different results in mind. And so I’m just wondering if a different administration would necessarily want to get rid of the Schedule F, even though the employee groups don’t like it, it could be a useful tool, no matter what side you’re on politically.

Don Kettl: Well, that’s exactly right, Tom. And on the one hand, the current system for hiring, and especially firing federal employees has no fans anywhere, nobody likes it. And so any effort to try to blow it up would find lots of fans in virtually all corners, even though there’s an open question about what that ought to look like. The other thing, too, is that there’s been some quiet whispering among some of the Democrats saying, well, you know, the Trump people were trying to engage in abuse of power. But this could be sort of an interesting tool for us to be able to make sure that we can make sure we have our loyalists in place as well. And so we’re setting up a kind of a large battle between not only of the public employee unions, but also the existing protections for federal workers on the one hand. The fact on the other that nobody at all likes the current system for hiring and firing. And on the third hand, if you will, just the question that there are strong political motivations among Democrats and Republicans to make sure that they have the power to be able to put more loyalists into key positions.

Tom Temin: And just what is it that in your days as a professor at LBJ – I don’t know whether that school is meeting in person, or whether you’re zooming with all of your students – but what do you hear from them in their regard? This is the yet-to-be generation that could come into government. What do they think of all this?

Don Kettl: Well, exactly. And I actually I meet with the students, but I’m meeting with them via Zoom weekly, and we’ve had lots of great conversations, but I actually asked them flat out about some of their career aspirations, and in a class of 33 I asked how many are interested in working for the federal government? The answer was two. So the number of people at top public policy schools who see the federal government as a career goal is down and low and will only be further damaged by all these battles back and forth. This is, if we’re interested in trying to solve the human capital problem, one of the biggest challenges we have to face.

Tom Temin: Don Kettl is professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. As always, thanks so much.

Don Kettl: Good to be with you there, Tom

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview at FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive. Hear the Federal Drive on your schedule. Subscribe at Podcastone or wherever you get your podcasts.

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