How Jared Kushner Can Successfully Reform Government

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Joanne Butler Contributor
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Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, is heading up a government reform team made up of top-level business sector people.  Meanwhile, inside the Beltway and across the nation, millions of bureaucrats shrug.  They’ve seen it before – e.g., former Vice President Al Gore’s ‘Silver Hammer’ awards for government innovation.  The federal government is large, unionized (in many places), with varying corporate cultures among agencies.  But Kusher could succeed if he aims at the right targets.  Here are a few of my suggestions.

Get someone with federal reform experience on the Kushner team.  My top pick would be Michael Astrue who was the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration in the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.  His private sector background is in biotech and as a corporate turnaround CEO.  One of the first things Astrue did as commissioner was to fire an underperforming political appointee, and changed the locks as the guy headed for the parking lot.  A Trumpian move, yes?

There’s more:  Astrue found employees were confused when handling disability claims based on rare diseases.  He asked the Institute of Medicine at HHS for a list of such diseases that met the agency’s criteria for disability benefits.  The result was ‘Compassionate Allowances’ — a system that fast-tracks approval for people who have these diseases.  This and other reforms by Astrue streamlined a very complex claims system.

Interestingly, when Astrue left government service, he commented on his frustration with his having to have every public utterance “cleared by a 28-year-old at OMB”. Any thoughts on this, Mr. Kushner?

Look for barnacles and scrape them off.  The mandate to have Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Offices in every federal department and agency is a good example.  The original mandate came from George W. Bush and was expanded by Barack Obama.  Undoubtedly, many agencies have anecdotal evidence of the good works of their faith-based offices, but enough time has passed for faith-based and community groups to have learned how to apply for grants or contracts.  These offices should be closed.  Perhaps the White House’s office has closed already?  The whitehouse.gov website no longer has a faith-based initiative page.

Look at the last Bush Administration’s program evaluations.  Bush’s Office of Management and Budget developed a ‘Program Assessment Rating Tool’ (PART) that evaluated about 1,000 federal programs. It rated programs as ‘effective’, ‘moderately effective’, ‘adequate’, and ‘ineffective’.  It’s no surprise that the evaluations stopped under President Obama.

Further, absent Astrue-like leadership, federal programs are slow to change.  Thus, although the final PART evaluations are about a decade old, they can be a useful sifting tool when winnowing the ‘adequate’ and ‘ineffective’ from the ‘effective’ and ‘moderately effective’.  The next step – and it’s a difficult one – is to get the ‘ineffective’ programs off the statute books.  And if the ‘adequate’ programs don’t shape up, they’ll be next.

Eliminate Mandatory but Useless Reports.  This may bore Kusher’s technocrat big-wigs, but it’s is a bipartisan no-brainer, as Senator Mark Warner has a strong interest in this subject.  According to The Washington Post, in 2014 Congress required the Executive Branch to submit 4,291 mandatory reports.  Also in 2014, Congress passed a bill to eliminate 48 of these reports but added 70 new ones!  While a few reports are topical and important, most are gestures to constituents or interest groups – to demonstrate how Congress is interested in their issue.

However, long after the interest or issue fades, the statutory mandate to produce the report lives on.  Some agencies diligently produce their reports, to the tune of countless staff hours lost, but the reports eventually end up in a dumpster.  Some canny bureaucrats roll the dice, fail to submit a report, and then wait to see if anyone on Capitol Hill notices (they usually don’t).

The President has imposed a hiring freeze for federal agencies.  Eliminating wasteful work will free up employees to do more meaningful things, while keeping overall personnel numbers down.  Kusher’s team should compile a report-elimination bill for Congress and go big – surely at least a thousand reports could disappear without notice!

Have a culture-change team focus on the small stuff.  On the ground level, federal workers believe their corporate culture is changing when they see tangible results.  Start with cable television subscriptions and televisions in offices.  Ask every department to tabulate how many cable television subscriptions and televisions they have.  Have the departmental reports break down the numbers by position.  Having a television in one’s office is a status symbol.  It’s also a waste of taxpayer money.  It’s time to pull the plug!

What’s in the federal car parking lot?  When Mitch Daniels became governor of Indiana in 2005, he faced a request for a new parking lot in the state capital.  What he did instead was to have staff put pennies in the tires of the cars in the state car lot.  Weeks later, there were still pennies on tire tops everywhere.  Soon after, those cars were sold and off the state property books.  Again, this may not be stimulating stuff, but it strengthens the message to the bureaucracy that a new boss is in town.

I realize having meetings with big-name technology businesspeople would be intellectually stimulating.  However, buying high tech applications for the federal government will be expensive, and may not be feasible in the near-term.

A lower-tech approach has its merits.  Imagine the looks on people’s faces when they see cartfuls of televisions being hauled out of their agency’s building.  Or the gasp from a horror-stricken bureaucrat when he/she realizes they’re no longer entitled to a government car.

The message will be plain and powerful: under President Trump, the federal bureaucracy has new leadership that reaches past the front office to the front lines.