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Managing Federal Bureaucracy – Optimism, Accountability and Downsizing

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Prediction: Rough waters ahead. Federal Bureaucracy must be on the edge of their seats. President Trump is wasting no time. Results and accountability are watchwords. The trick will be managing for results, balancing inspiration and optimism with onrushing change and methodical downsizing. If the past week is prelude, the future is about to get very exciting – and more difficult for all the appointees.


Once President Trump’s appointees are ensconced, they will encounter two groups. How the two are addressed and inspired may decide the rest. One is quiet patriots, seasoned experts who are ready to help the new president. At the State Department, despite recent resignations, this will include civil servants and Foreign Service officers. Some are prepared to be loyal and focused on mission completion, ready for performance – patriots. They will not shy from responsibility or accountability, since these concepts wake and motivate them. That group is essential to success. They are sunlight for the dark corners.

The other group is a fog bank, often opaque and disorienting – they are prepared to be passively resistant to the president’s agenda, especially this president. They likely did not vote for him, and have their own private agendas. Their agendas do not agree with his. They expect to outlast come-and-go political appointees, including the president. The phenomenon is not new, but promises to be particularly acute this cycle.

How to clear the fog, or disperse it with sunlight … First, appointed leaders may invite pockets of permanent knowledge into the inner circle, ask advice and listen, recognize experts and give them a chance to shine. Inclusion will not win all, but some. Leaders might palpably reference patriotism, honor, duty and mutual respect. Some in the fog bank will glaze; others will hear that horn and rally.


At State, Rex Tillerson – a former Head of Boy Scouts – may reference values in the Scout Law. He has done that effectively across the corporate community, while leading the third largest company in the world. Why not at State? The values are America, what we once aspired to be and still can be, individually and as a nation. Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. Thrifty may come in especially handy. When “better angels” are called out, surprise-surprise, they often appear.

Still, some will not respond to this invitation. They will resent or diminish it, roll their eyes or think themselves beyond it, out of reach. They may be set against the president’s agenda, despite its all- American quality. Or perhaps because of its traditional flavor. They may plan to resist, slow rolling his leadership. To them, the whipsaw from Obama’s listlessness to Trump’s emphasis on results, is a tight turn, actually a U-turn. Nevertheless, they are not absolved from their constitutional duty. Historically, federal employees signed an oath, then carried certified copies around proudly. Not recently, even if duty remains.

In any event, deftly managing the second group is equally important. Federal employees do not work “at will.” They are not private sector employees. They hold property rights in their jobs, which trigger no end of due process assurances, administrative actions, filings and hearings, delays and appeals, reviews and remonstrance, even recriminations. Reflexively, they often assert claims against justified removal, end up with drawn-out proceedings involving the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) and Office of Special Counsel (OSC). Both organizations, and the statutes that animate them, are overdue for review and reform, but also law.


New employees must expect high transactions costs and x-inefficiencies as they manage change. These federal laws could confound those used to easier hire-and-fire processes. For example, “whistleblower protection” is essential, but how broadly can it be asserted? If supervisors cannot “engage in reprisal for whistleblowing,” how do they sift wheat from chaff, performers from clock-punchers, real from pretense? How are such actions reviewed to make all accountable?

On one hand, whistleblowers are vital to management oversight and taxpayers. On the other, institutions throw up defenses to change. Inertia hates movement; dark corners hate sunlight. Defenses can be misused. Well-intended protections can become foils to block reform, slow innovation, and nobble efficiencies that involve reduced budgets, programs and personnel. Threading the needle early is important.

Reagan shot these rapids best. He was clear, focused and effective. Positive and congenial, he was about getting accountability, team play, setting expectations early, putting consequences to them. Trust but verify. When someone had to go, they did – At State, Al Haig’s was out, George Schultz in, same day affair. Reagan was fair, but enforced rules with consistency.

Reagan gave striking air traffic controllers 48 hours to return to work, then did what no one thought he would – including Soviet observers. He dropped the hammer on those who knowingly violated the law. They never forgot it; neither did Gorbachev. Leadership included rewards for creativity, new thinking, risk taking, loyalty and hard work. In that way, Reagan succeeded, a patient man. He had worked a lifetime to get where he could finally bring change – like someone else.


So real change is hard – at all levels – but worth the effort. Certain laws are ripe for reform, including the MSPB and OSC’s underlying Civil Service Reform Act, Whistleblower Protection Act, Hatch Act, and Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act. But knowing them will help new leaders to lead effectively.

Finally, inspiration counts. As new leaders promote those willing to shine, reward flashes of brilliance, invite those flashes and risk taking, trust will proliferate. Change on a massive scale, and changing the federal government will be massive, requires persistence and regular reference to those “better angels.” The aim is to do what must be done, while finding and defining common cause, instilling confidence and mission commitment through accomplishment. And patriotism.

Underneath mounds of paper and duplicative directives, endless regulations, personal and professional worries, distractions and federal drift, there is even in bureaucracy, a love of country. As Ronald Reagan used to say, with that irrepressible smile and ebullience, “there’s a pony in there somewhere.” And there is. The mission is for our new leaders to find it. America’s heartland is counting on them.

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