Setting the table for the next administration

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Among the many voices pushing for continuous improvement in public administration and public service, the National Academy of Public Administration has published a long list of ideas for the administration that begins this coming January. For what she and the organization are hoping for, NAPA president and CEO Terry Gerton joined the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Terry, good to have you back.

Terry Gerton: Hey, good morning, Tom.

Tom Temin: So millions are still going to the polls and millions have voted already. And you see some grand challenges in public administration. We’ve discussed these earlier that the next administration, regardless, will face. Briefly review those for us.

Terry Gerton: Well, sure. We rolled out our 12 Grand Challenges of Public Administration last November, and had no idea at that point how applicable they would be to today’s times, but they include things like protecting electoral integrity and enhancing voter participation, foster social equity, build resilient communities, advance the nation’s long-term fiscal health, all really focused on a lot of the aspects that we’re seeing play out in our nation’s conversations.

Tom Temin: And of course, protecting the electoral integrity is kind of foundational to people having trust whatsoever in government of elected leadership. And given what NAPA has said about that, what do you think the 2024 electoral process would look like relative to today’s?

Terry Gerton: Well, you know, one of the things we’ve been doing with our grand challenges is putting out what we call the Election 2020 Project, which is, based on the input of our fellows, ideas that the next administration, either newly elected or re-elected could take to address these issues. And so when you look at elections and electoral participation, I think we’re seeing a lot of those actions being put into place already for the 2021 election, one of the first things that will have to happen is a thorough review. Like, in the military, we would call it an after-action review of how this election goes. But a couple of critical things are to continue the effort on cybersecurity and securing not only the election systems, but also the information around elections so that people know how to participate and they don’t have misinformation about that. The easy access and early voting steps that we’ve seen taken for this election, we suggest that they continue. Most importantly, is maintaining and improving the capacity of states by providing needed financial and technical assistance resources so that we continue to build the robustness of the electoral system so that as you mentioned at the beginning, people can have trust and confidence in both the process and the results.

Tom Temin: And we have seen some progress there. I mean, taking a look in Florida, they seem to have really taken this to heart since Florida, back in 2000, was an issue, the way they had punchcard voting. And I know where I live in Maryland, we did our ballots early, put them in a dropbox. And by golly, you know, a couple days later an email said we got your ballot. It’s safely to be counted. And there you go.

Terry Gerton: Right. I think your point is exactly right. Elections are run by states and counties. So I’m encouraged by the actions that the state election officials have taken, especially the lessons they learned running primaries during COVID to make this federal election cycle, really much more reliable than it might otherwise have been.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Terry Girton. She’s president and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration. And looking at federal public service. This is another one of the grand challenges that clearly the next administration can deal with and approve or not, depending on how it executes. But what are some of the things that you would like to see happen to modernize and invigorate public service, to use NAPA’s words?

Terry Gerton: One of the things that runs through several of these grand challenges and election 2020 plans is the importance of civic education. So that’s one of the recommendations that we have to really reinvigorate a national civic education curriculum, so that people are better aware of what folks who are engaged in federal public service actually do. But beyond that, really focusing on modernizing the flexibility of the job classification and pay structures so that they reflect a 21st century approach to how we know people behave regarding their employment, not just in the federal sector. Hiring reform that really expands the use of streamlined hiring authorities and simplifies: This administration has already worked on simplifying the security clearance process, but we maintain that that needs to continue to be a focus so that you can have rapid response to folks who are pursuing employment in the federal government can really move the Office of Personnel Management towards a federal talent management approach as opposed to just a compliance and classifications approach. One of the things we recommended in several of our proposals in our No Time To Wait series and continued through within this election 2020 plan is a real transformation towards talent management for the federal workforce.

Tom Temin: Well, let me ask you a side question with the executive order on that Schedule F for career people that are involved in policy advocacy or policy creation. Do you think that that just simply politicizes the whole thing? Or does it give the government the flexibility it needs to get the best people for those sensitive jobs? I mean, really, people have looked at this in many different ways.

Terry Gerton: Schedule F is a real challenge. A number of our fellows have spoken out about it. Of course, there’s legislation to stop any move toward it. Even NAPA has always spoken in support of the expertise and the nonpartisan nature of the federal career workforce. And we maintain that that’s absolutely essential so that, back to your initial question, people can have trust in government, political appointees need to have a career staff that they can rely upon to give them their best professional advice, regardless of what the political situation is. And then we rely on the political appointees to make the policy decisions that are consistent with the administration. So Schedule F does make that more challenging and removing their system protections and employment protections is also a big deal. So I think we’re going to see how that plays out with the results of the election.

Tom Temin: And beyond the workforce, there are new approaches NAPA has called for, for public governance and engagement. What do you hope for there?

Terry Gerton: Well, so much of the challenge that we face for the challenges that we face at the federal level, really require federal agencies to be engaged with their state and local partners, with their nonprofit sector partners. And so our challenges in enhancing public governance really are about building the mechanisms to enable that kind of collaboration on the front end of policy and program development, so that we understand the interests and concerns of the folks that are federal partners in executing federal government programs. Another key feature of that is thinking that OMB should employ portfolio budgeting, and focus on results. You know, I come from a background in federal resource management. And the truth of the matter is, where the money goes, is where the real priorities are. And so finding a way for OMB to develop federal budgets that recognize administration policy priorities and aggregate programs, so that they can demonstrate results is an important way to signal to our partners where that focus is going to be. And then the corollary to that is simplifying the execution of those, so folks on the ground have more flexibility. We’re not just talking block grants, but abilities to combine different programs, and really measure the impact that they have on citizens. So linking that resourcing and prioritization structure at all the different levels of government, starting from the federal level down, is an important piece of communicating the value of the government programs to the people who are going to be affected by them.

Tom Temin: And finally, it seems like two of the most important statutes, at least in my view, that can really be revisited perhaps from time to time to make sure they’re current and fulfill modern needs: One is Title V, which affects federal employment. And the other is the Administrative Procedures Act, which in many ways dictates how government behaves towards the governed. Any thoughts of whether those need review or work by Congress?

Terry Gerton: Well, certainly Title V, as it relates to the federal workforce, is an important feature and one that we’ve called for reform, especially looking at the administrative application of Title V, but it really gets to the point of understanding that we have different federal workforces, depending on which federal employment statute they’re covered under. Again, that’s really going to be a role for what we hope will be a reinvigorated OPM, and a modernized OPM, back to the question of the federal civil service. But the Administrative Procedures Act is a really important statute because it controls how we communicate about federal rules and regulations. And there’s always opportunity to improve how that’s done. I think there’s been a lot of work over the past few years in engaging the citizenry and commenting on federal rules and regulations that are being considered. But it tends to focus on the usual populations of folks who are stakeholders and interested parties. And I think there’s lots of opportunity with the new tools and technology that we have, especially a lot of the new tools and technologies we put in place through the coronavirus to improve how we deal directly with citizens and how citizens deal with the government to expand that to allow them to be more engaged and commenting on the rulemaking and regulation process.

Tom Temin: Terry Gerton is president and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration. Did you vote early, or are you going today?

Terry Gerton: I voted early in Arlington and checked online to make sure that my vote had already been counted. So we are excited about the election. It’s the big aspect of how we participate as citizens in our country and how we choose to be governed, and so we strongly encourage everyone to vote as they have the opportunity today.

Tom Temin: Thanks so much for joining me.

Terry Gerton: Great to be with you, Tom. Thanks.

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