In planning for the reorg, Price encourages employees to help him ‘reimagine’ HHS

Department secretaries have been making the rounds this week, outlining their plans to reorganize their agencies and detailing how those strategies may involve ...

Previous administrations have acknowledged the oddities of the food safety system. They’ve known for years it’s unnecessarily complicated, but haven’t been able to change it.

The Agriculture Department, for example, is responsible for ensuring that open-faced turkey sandwiches meet its safety standards.

Add another slice of bread and the Food and Drug Administration is responsible. Same with a slice of cheese pizza.

But add pepperoni, and that slice of pizza falls under USDA’s purview.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price wants to examine processes and systems like this one as he and others within HHS tackle the Trump administration’s call to reorganize government and restructure the federal workforce.

“It may be easy to point out on paper what looks like a nonsensical system, but actually improving how government does things is a lot harder,” he said, during a May 2 speech to the HHS workforce, as he laid out his vision for reorganizing the agency.

Price called on his employees to help him “reimagine HHS” and find better ways to serve the public, while exploring new methods to do the work more effectively and efficiently.

“Our HHS community, I believe, ought to view this as  an opportunity, an opportunity to reimagine how we do the work that we do and how we can do it better,” he said. “You probably know all sorts of things, large and small, that should change within your own office or your own operating division or your own staff division.”

Price said he heard some of these ideas already during visits with the HHS operating and staff divisions.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had a similar message for his employees during a speech on his plans to reorganize the department — and possibly eliminate as many as 2,300 jobs. Price and Tillerson’s words echo Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney’s own message to the workforce: federal employees shouldn’t fear pending cuts but should welcome the chance to contribute.

An executive committee with career employees and political appointees from the secretary’s office will lead HHS’ reorganization effort. A steering committee with members of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Response, Assistant Secretary for Financial Resources and Assistant Secretary for Administration will work on “the nuts and bolts” of the reorganization process, Price said.

The department will also form five working groups, which will align themselves with each of the five goals in HHS’ strategic plan.

Chris Wlaschin, chief information security officer for HHS, said during an ACT-IAC May 4 cybersecurity forum that the department is forming teams to look at its business and the forces that impact it.

“I like that choice of words, as opposed to reorg[anizing] or reinventing,” he said of Price’s vision to reimagine the department. “Because that implies using brain power, using creativity to reshape HHS into an organization that can deliver the products, the services, the data, the research and the solutions that are going to help hundreds of millions of people.”

Price reiterated again that career staff with years of experience will be involved “at every single level” of the process.

“Plenty of past efforts at reforming our department have not been completed or not been enacted, and so there’s a reason for that,” he said. “Success in this endeavor isn’t going to happen just because we get the right corporate buzzwords or we present elegant diagrams of the organizational charts from consultants far and wide. It’s going to happen because every single person within this department, from the secretary’s office across the entire department, is willing to listen to the people above and below them in the organizational chart, and to cooperate with colleagues across our agencies and divisions and persist in making change possible.”

Their work will focus on six principles:

  1. Engagement,
  2. Empowerment,
  3. Service,
  4. Performance,
  5. Stewardship, and
  6. Sustainability.

Price said he has confidence in his employees, because they’ve taken the initiative to point out problems and fix them on their own.

HHS employees, for example, redesigned a 30-year-old public affairs clearance process a few years ago. The Office of Public Affairs once cleared more than 1,000 items a year. Now, 150 items move through the office.

It’s changes like that one that Price said he wants to replicate. The department recently installed a “virtual suggestion box” on the HHS intranet that will eventually expand to other department facilities across the country.

“Reforming a clearance process might not seem like such a big deal, and that’s partly my point,” he said. “You may be sitting there thinking or listening, ‘Look, my work isn’t that important. It doesn’t have that much to do with life-saving activity.’ But your job, whatever it is, contributes to our mission as a whole, and we want to help you do it as best as you are able.”

Many civilian agencies, including HHS, could see significant budget reductions in fiscal 2018. President Donald Trump’s “skinny budget” proposed an 18 percent cut next year. OMB has said that upcoming agency reorganization will be tied to upcoming budget priorities.

Yet Price offered a different perspective.

“I don’t view this work as a budgetary exercise,” he said. “This is about finding ways for our department to better fulfill our mission. We’re not looking to achieve an arbitrary financial goal or workforce numbers. I — we — enter this process with no preconceptions about what works and what doesn’t work, and we’re certainty not gunning for specific programs or agencies.”

And like other secretaries and members of the Trump administration, Price encouraged his employees to think of the upcoming efforts to reorganize as a positive activity.

“Throughout this process, I ask that you be enthusiastic and optimistic,” he said. “I ask that we be collaborative, that we work together through this process. I ask that we be caring of each other and what we do.”

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