The Trump administration’s ambitious plan to overhaul numerous aspects of Federal civilian agencies received a decidedly mixed reception today at a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, as several committee members grilled the hearing’s sole witness–Margaret Weichert, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget–on a range of issues including how the reorganization plan would impact the Federal workforce.

The reorg plan, released by the White House on June 21, made the biggest headlines with a proposal to merge the Departments of Education and Labor, but also features a strong push to use technology to modernize the delivery of government services to citizens, as well as seeking to “solve” the Federal cybersecurity workforce shortage by “establishing a unified cyber workforce capability across the civilian enterprise.”

The bigger newsmakers from today’s hearing had to do with structure and timing of the proposal, with Weichert estimating that plan would take three to five years to implement even if Congress fully cooperates with the measures it proposes, and the fact that none of the items in the proposal have been subject to any cost-benefit analysis.

That latter point was hammered home by Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., ranking member of the committee, who faulted the proposal for its failure to estimate its impact on the Federal budget, and on the Federal workforce. “These are the prerequisites of a serious plan, and they are completely missing from this one,” he said.  He also faulted the administration for failing to work on the proposal with Congress, asserting that its details were kept “secret” from members.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., sounded a similar theme by saying that previous government reorganization plans were rolled out in such a way “where Congress has to buy in along the way, along with interest groups,” and faulted the process of the current proposal because it “brings Congress into the process to seek approval of a plan after it is written.”

Weichert responded that previous government reform proposals were “winnowed away” because of too much public exposure before they were proposed, and said the White House wants to put the proposal out for “public debate” before engaging in an “implementation phase… which we know has to happen in public.”

Despite his criticism of the proposal process, Rep. Issa spoke approvingly of the plan’s aim to improve government services through better use of technology, something he said was “long overdue in government.”

He said that while Congress has taken action to empower Federal agency chief information officers, “there are still too many of them” and that control of IT functions still needs to be taken out of small agencies, which he described as “little fiefdoms.”

Weichert endured a withering barrage of questions from committee members about the proposal’s impact on Federal workers, but did not supply a lot of specific answers because those details have not yet been worked out.

She did tell Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., that any changes in agency functions have “to be delivered by the workforce we have.” And she said the workforce would be changing over the next decade as many current members of the workforce reach retirement eligibility.

She elaborated, “What we do not actually have is a problem of too many federal employees,” but added, “What we do have is a skills alignment and challenge opportunity.”

Weichert told Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., that a goal of the reorganization proposal is to save money, and that reducing the Federal workforce “is not a focus, but may be a biproduct.” She also said the proposal contemplates looking at how to redeploy Federal workers “to areas where we cannot hire enough people.” Those areas, she indicted, may include cybersecurity and other data-related positions.

Other aspects of the reorganization plan questioned by committee members included moving Federal workforce retirement, healthcare, and other policy functions into the Executive Office of the President, possible moves to privatize the U.S. Postal Service and air traffic control functions, and the reported role of the Heritage Foundation in supplying ideas for the plan.

Weichert told committee members that the proposal is a “roadmap designed to jump start a conversation” about its contents, and acknowledged that “accomplishing the goals in this plan will not be easy.”

“This is the first truly public conversation we are having, and we expect to have many public conversations” about the proposal, Weichert said. Further engagement by the administration with labor unions and civil service employee representatives are likely to take place this summer, she said.

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John Curran
John Curran
John Curran is MeriTalk's Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.