President Donald Trump spent the bulk of this week doing what he does best: slashing his way through a slew of Obama-era rules and actions, especially the ones intended to protect the environment. But on Monday, he took a pause to actually create something new: the White House Office of American Innovation (OAI). Run by Trump’s senior aide and son-in-law Jared Kushner, whose chief qualification seems to be running the real estate company built by his father and grandfather, the OAI will work with “thought leaders” (so far this seems to mean a ton of tech CEOs) to troubleshoot chronic governmental efficiencies. The idea is basically that the private-sector expertise of people like Kushner could make the government run better; some have speculated that this is part of the Trump team’s attempted “deconstruction of the administrative state.”
Experts on the left and right say the OAI is—outwardly at least—less about deconstruction, more about the uncontroversial goal of good governance, albeit pursued in an ideologically tinged manner. Kushner’s initial goals for the office—improving veterans’ services, developing new tools to fight the US opioid epidemic, upgrading federal tech, training, and logistics—are laudable. The catch is that this type of initiative is hardly innovative, and so far we have yet to see the OAI take any of the steps experts tell me will be vital for it to get anything done.
“There are a lot of open variables right now as to whether this will in fact be a productive exercise,” said Max Stier, founder and president of the Partnership for Public Services, a nonprofit organization focusing on efficient public sector management.
Most administrations for over a century have tried to improve governmental efficiency, and every president since Ronald Reagan has prioritized working with private sector expertise. Bill Clinton launched a notable initiative that made a number of reforms; Barack Obama, who prioritized governmental efficiency bids in major speeches, made it a point to focus on the kind of Silicon Valley-style innovation that seems to get Kushner excited. (Critics claim Obama never took business leaders’ advice.) As Mordecai Lee, a historian of governmental reorganization and efficiency efforts, pointed out to me, Congress has embedded internal performance analyses, critiques, and improvement functions into most federal agencies, while management overhaul is baked into the mission of the Office of Management and Budget. So Trump’s executive order is nothing new.
Arguably the only real novelties the OAI offers are how quickly it was created, its placement within the White House, and the fact that it’s run by a key member of Trump’s inner circle. “This is one area where you can applaud the Trump team for getting started early,” said Stier, “and for the fact that it has championship from the very top.”
But Stier and others I spoke to agree that head start won’t matter if the initiative isn’t properly staffed. The thing about government is that it’s not a business, no matter how often people insist it should be run like one. The public sector is beholden to vast arrays of interests and constrained by inviolable rules, which can be utterly alien to businessmen used to more total control. Experts agree the OAI won’t succeed unless it’s helped by people from within agencies targeted for reforms who know what’s worked and failed before. That kind of buy-in is especially important because, as the Harvard governmental innovation expert John Donahue told me, “Career civil servants tend to view the inevitable new-administration efficiency crusades as the ‘flavor of the month,’ which they’ll basically wait out.”
Or as Chris McKenna, an expert on transferring management models at the University of Oxford, put it: “You could import Goldman Sachs bankers into the [Catholic] Church as much as you want. But I don’t think that’s really going to improve it” on its own.
Stier cautioned that the OAI can’t be efficient unless it is explicit about what it wants to accomplish, draws from the work of previous administrations, and gets financial backing for its plans in annual budgets. “This is a long road,” he added. “It’s not one of those things where you sign an executive order and wash your hands of it. It’s something that requires a deep commitment over time where you constantly pay attention to it, or it doesn’t make much of a difference.”
Kushner might have a problem with the “paying attention to it” part. Beyond the OAI, he’s tasked with managing Middle Eastern peace talks and general foreign policy in that region, as well as Canada, China, and Mexico.
“Each one of those is a gargantuan job in and of itself,” said Elaine Kamarck, who created and managed the massive Clinton-era National Performance Review, a rough parallel to the OAI. “You don’t give more than one of those jobs to one person and expect anything to happen—it’s just not realistic.”
“Going around and insulting bureaucrats and making war with everybody in government is not exactly a great way to start.”
So far, the OAI reportedly meets twice a week in Kushner’s office. Kushner is apparently proud that none of the core team members have political experience. The way he talks about citizens as customers and government as a business suggest he may believe his private-sector knowledge is all he needs. (His tenure as a real estate mogul and newspaper owner was a bit spotty, reportedly.)
McKenna believes language describing the OAI as a “SWAT team” suggests it will stay a small unit as well, capable of making proclamations about tone and general ideas at best, but lacking the staff to dive long or deep into any issue or agency. “And frankly, going around and insulting bureaucrats and making war with everybody in government is not exactly a great way to start,” added Kamarck.
Even if the OAI is, by design or by ineptitude, just an optics-boosting playpen for Kushner and business leaders and rail against federal inefficiency, there’s no real harm in that. It’ll just be another case of Trump not actually getting anything done.
Stier cautions that there’s not a lot to go on from the OAI so far. Kushner could surprise everyone by bringing in long-term dedicated lieutenants adept at navigating the tricky maze of bureaucracy and special interests that has to be negotiated during any substantive reform effort. But Donahue’s impression is much more grim: “I suspect it’s not a fundamentally serious enterprise.”
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