How Trump's team of billionaires could make Washington work

Donald Trump's proposed cabinet is filled with successful businesspeople. That experience can help – if the nominees are patient and persistent in working with the massive federal bureaucracy.

Evan Vucci/AP
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah (left) meets with Treasury Secretary-designate Steven Mnuchin on Dec. 8 on Capitol Hill in Washington.

If Donald Trump’s cabinet picks want insight into the jobs they’ve signed up for, they might want to peek at the books now coming out about the difficulty of government reform.

Even the titles are discouraging. There’s “Escaping Jurassic Government,” “Why Presidents Fail And How They Can Succeed Again,” and “Relic: How Our Constitution Undermines Effective Government.”

The bottom line is that governing is hard, government management experts say. Trying to change a bureaucracy that will outlast an administration is even harder. And nothing can quite prepare appointees for the management complexities that lie ahead.

But change is possible, these experts add. And just because President-elect Trump’s cabinet nominees are light on government experience and heavily concentrated in the private sector does not mean they are destined to fail. The public sector could learn a lot from the private sector.

Success depends on how someone approaches the job, says Elaine Kamarck, director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Effective Public Management and author of “Why Presidents Fail And How They Can Succeed Again.” “There are some business people who take to government very well. And there are some business people who can't deal with all the ambiguities and the politics.”

Every administration – Republican or Democrat – finds it a challenge to implement its agenda. A typical cabinet secretary has to win over senior career officials within his or her department, persuade congressional committees and subcommittees to back the administration’s policy, line up nongovernmental organizations to pressure wavering senators or congressmen, sell the policy to the public, and effectively tell an impatient president what can and can’t be done realistically.

“You have to judge each administration by just how hard it is to get change in government,” says Carl DeMaio, a senior fellow who directs the presidential transitions initiative of the Performance Institute, a nonpartisan, private think tank seeking to improve public- and private-sector performance. “When you do see turnarounds in government, it's exceptional.”

Experience can help

Those with prior experience – such as former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, Mr. Trump’s nominee for Transportation secretary – have a greater chance of success, government management experts say. It doesn’t hurt that she is married to Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.

Political experience can also be a plus. Trump’s choice to head the Department of Health and Human Services – US Rep. Tom Price (R) of Georgia – is also familiar with the ropes. The former surgeon and six-term congressman and longtime member of the American Medical Association has the background that would suggest a greater chance for success.

Of course, just because nominees have the background for success doesn’t mean they will succeed, especially on contentious political issues. Representative Price, for example, is an ardent foe of Obamacare, which is likely to make him a high-profile target of Democrats.

The prospects for Trump’s business nominees – several of them millionaires or billionaires – are less clear.

“I don't think the size of your portfolio or the success of your particular organization is determinative” of success,” says G. Edward DeSeve, former controller of the Office of Management and Budget and author of “The Presidential Appointee's Handbook.” “It’s understanding how things work,” leadership in various forms, and a global perspective.

The secretary of Commerce post is often handed to a businessperson. And Trump’s nominee, Wilbur Ross, has earned billions turning businesses around. That should help.

“He's been involved in unionized businesses, which have their own inflexibilities,” says Martin Fridson, chief investment officer at Lehmann Livian Fridson Advisors, LLC and author of a 2001 book profiling billionaires, “How to be a Billionaire.” “He has made important decisions about how they would manage the turnaround and the ongoing operations…. I would suspect he would be OK.”

A whole new ball game

Those Trump nominees who have managed or worked for large companies – such as Rex Tillerson (nominated for secretary of State) and Steven Mnuchin (Treasury) – also have experience with balancing the demands of boards of directors, shareholders, customers, and the government.

Mr. “Tillerson from Exxon and the whole gang from Goldman [Sachs] – those are somewhat bureaucratic organizations,” says Mr. Fridson. “It's not as though they snap their fingers and things get done.”

The difference is in scale. Chief executives are used to dealing with the media and a set of board of directors. But in the public sector, the media scrutiny is far more intense and there are a dozen or more boards of directors to answer to, in the form of congressional committees and subcommittees.

In the case of the Department of Homeland Security and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there can be up to 100 “boards of directors” that their heads have to answer to, says Ms. Kamarck, who managed the Clinton administration’s National Partnership for Reinventing Government.

Other departments pose special challenges for business executives. “Rex Tillerson's problem is that he’ll go from a world that has all measurable metrics” to a job that has virtually none, says Kamarck.

“With the exception of consular affairs, which hands out passports, the State Department doesn't do anything that is measurable,” Kamarck says. “Instead, it is constantly making judgments about what is in the best interests of the United States now and in the future.”

Winning over the bureaucracy

Then there’s the bureaucracy itself – some 2.7 million federal employees (not counting military personnel) – who are not used to rapid change and are extremely hard to fire. The key is winning over the several hundred thousand senior and middle managers, says Mr. DeMaio, who helped put together the management agenda for President George W. Bush in 2000.

But some of them will be hard to win over if their goals are so opposed to the leadership. For example: Trump’s pick to head the EPA, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, has said “there's a tremendous dispute” over climate change – a stance that puts him at odds with almost all climate scientists. Climate change is an area where a Trump cabinet member may face active bureaucratic resistance, says DeMaio. Immigration policy is another.

In these standoffs, “the bureaucracy tends to win because the political appointees aren't ready to overcome this resistance,” DeMaio adds. But “it's the political appointee that has the authority” – if they have the patience and staying power to fight back.

The final key to Trump’s cabinet’s success will be the teams that they build around them. The deputy secretary tends to run the department and, thus, needs a deep knowledge of how it works, DeMaio says. High-quality assistant secretaries will also be needed.

“I'm not seeing anything to be concerned about in the transition,” he adds. “There are some really good people that are being appointed” at those levels.  

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