The Biden administration – less than four months after taking office – has thus far developed a reputation for going “big” with its policy and spending aims.
What unites some of those big efforts? How about the word “trillions” – for the American Rescue Plan (approved at $1.9 trillion), the American Jobs Plan (proposed at $2.3 trillion), the American Families Plan (offered at $1.8 trillion), a preliminary Fiscal Year 2022 budget (dangled at $1.5 trillion), and who knows how much in taxes required to pay for them.
At this point, “small” is not the new administration’s watchword.
But very soon – within weeks I suspect – we will be learning much more about some of the nitty-gritty details underlying the administration’s big-picture visions that will help paint a much clearer picture of what the government hopes to accomplish over the next four years.
Here Comes the PMA
As I noted in my last column, we still await President Biden’s complete and full FY 2022 budget proposal. The so-called “skinny budget” released last month outlines his plans for the discretionary part of next year’s budget. But it doesn’t include the almost two-thirds of the budget dedicated to mandatory programs, nor does it feature revenue forecasts or other accompanying documents, like the Analytical Perspectives volume.
It is in this latter document that one would normally find a crucial chapter on the President’s Management Agenda (PMA). Why is the Biden PMA important?
A number of years ago in a special forum I assembled for “The Public Manager” journal, Prof. Donald Kett, then of the University of Maryland, spoke to the very heart of that question:
“No self-respecting president can enter office without a management plan,” he said. “Not that ordinary Americans expect it; most know little and care less about who delivers their public services and how. A management plan, however, conveys important signals to key players. The federal executive branch’s 2.6 million employees look for clues about where their new boss will take them. Private consultants tune their radar in search of new opportunities. Most important, those who follow the broad strategies of government management seek to divine how the new president will approach the job of chief executive, where priorities will lie, and what tactics the president will follow in pursuing them. Management matters; with each new administration, the fresh question is how.”
I’d like to offer a President’s Management Agenda framework – PMA 46 – for the Biden-Harris Administration. I hope his new management team at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the General Services Administration (GSA), and Federal agency chief operating officers will find it useful.
It draws from President Biden’s speeches, policy papers, and platform as well as the testimony of key advisors during recent confirmation hearings. Also, if one views the budget in part as the “pricing out” of priorities, it is possible to “backward map” from even the “skinny budget” to major elements of a PMA.
Here are some of the big tenets:
The private sector knows that reforms take years, but for a long time the public sector has had trouble grasping that lesson.
Historically, a new President would sweep away whatever his predecessor had done and develop an entirely new package. That’s what George W. Bush did with Vice President Al Gore’s reinventing government campaign. It was also what President Bill Clinton did with President George H. W. Bush’s total quality management initiative.
But in recent years, incoming leaders seem to have recognized that in Federal management reform, there is truly nothing new under the sun, and many old promises merit a second chance.
So for the Biden PMA, expect a “round up of the usual subjects” – acquisition reform (likely with more agility), performance measurement, financial management, shared services, customer satisfaction, and citizen services. And that is to be commended, as it creates the “steadiness in administration” that Alexander Hamilton described as essential to a government well-executed (see Professor Paul Light’s excellent volume “A Government Ill Executed,” 2008).
In the April 9, 2021 letter transmitting the President’s request for FY22 discretionary funding, OMB Acting Director Shalanda Young does note several “management” issues in the summary section.
No big surprises there, but all can be expected to reappear in some form in the PMA: “Made in America”; “green” initiatives such as clean energy technologies; opportunities for small and minority businesses; civil rights and diversity; and bolstering Federal cybersecurity.
Two others are noted as well, but the associated funding requests are so significant and widespread across multiple departments and agencies that they deserve special mention.
The first is innovation, to include key emerging technologies like quantum computing and artificial intelligence, as well as supporting research and development.
On the innovation front, the budget requests additional funding for existing programs or the establishment of new programs at the National Institutes of Health, the Departments of Energy, Commerce, and Defense, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, NASA, and other departments and agencies.
While these investments focus on competitiveness and economic growth, they also reflect a restoration of faith in the Federal government’s ability to tackle difficult problems.
The second is technology modernization. Again, as under President Trump, information technology is not viewed as a standalone management pillar. Rather it is viewed as a force multiplier and enabler for other key priorities such as enhanced citizen services, data analytics, and so on.
The discretionary request supports agencies as they modernize, strengthen and secure antiquated information systems both in additional funding for the Technology Modernization Fund and through $750 million as a reserve for agency IT enhancements. But it also includes specific modernization efforts at Veterans Affairs, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Social Security Administration.
The human capital component – to include hiring reform, the role of Federal unions, pay and benefits, performance appraisal, integrity of the civil service, and so on – clearly will be a major element of the Biden PMA.
In this area, perhaps more than in any other, the emphasis will be on undoing a number of actions taken by the Trump Administration, as well as formulating a Biden-Harris human resources agenda.
21st Century Vision
Finally – and by no means do I mean to minimize their import by employing a single summary bullet – I would expect to see steps taken to advance a vision of a 21st Century government which is focused on improving outcomes using data and evidence, re-establishing trust, re-imagining service delivery, evaluating programs, and recruiting and retaining new talent with technical skills in critical and emerging technology areas.
We should be able to see how accurate I am in predicting the contents of PMA 46 in less than a month or so.