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Do we (govies) expect the wrong things from the State of the Union?

If you were scrolling through government publications in the wake of the Tuesday’s State of the Union, you were probably not surprised to see headlines decrying the lack of mentions of feds or government reforms in the speech. Besides a reform to contractor pay and a new focus on permitting challenges, actual government reforms were hard to find. But maybe we (govies) weren’t looking for the right things.

Jitinder Kohli is a Director at Deloitte. He told Christopher Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that you had to read between the lines a bit to get the President’s message to government employees.

“If you look at what the President said in the State of the Union, he opens the speech talking about graduation rates going up (highest in three decades), he talks about job creation (8 million jobs over the last two years), he talks about farm exports being higher than they have been in a long time and he talks about a young child getting asthma treatment. If we think what organizing the business of government is about, it is about exactly those kinds of things. It is about people who graduate from school and are therefore equipped to help the economy compete. It is about creating jobs so that Americans do well. It is exports and it is about providing good health care. What is interesting about the way he talks about those things is that he really connected them to the individuals on the ground, the people who are actually doing those things. For example, on the issue of graduation rates he talked about teachers. On the issue of job creation he talked about entrepreneurs. On farm exports he talked about farmers and on asthma he talked about doctors. The message in there is that, that is the role of the federal government. The federal government owns each of those issues to some extent. It’s its job is to ensure that the US does well in each of those areas. If I think about the stuff that I care about in terms of government working efficiently and effectively, that is precisely what those issues are about,” said Kohli.

Really this is about goal setting?

“You and I have talked before on the show about the importance of setting clear goals for government. We talked about the importance of government defining what they are trying to achieve. In some ways, with the President opening his speech saying, ‘I am proud the government has achieved these things.’ He indicated these are the things that matter, they are powered not just by what happens in Washington, but what happens on the ground in schools, in entrepreneurial workplaces, on farms and in health care. I think that is a really important message that all of us should bear in mind. As we think about what we do with our work and how each government agency – the two million federal workers – most of whom are not in Washington, how they really go about making sure they have the impact on the American people that government is really there to achieve,” said Kohli.

Was there an acknowledgement of the people doing the day to day work?

“During the speech I heard an acknowledgement for people who are teaching or who are engaged in healthcare. I think it is easy for leaders of government to not mention the federal worker. If I go back to my time in the UK, it was extremely rare for civil servants to get any meaningful coverage in the speeches that our political leaders gave. That is not particularly surprising. Part of the role of being a civil servant is to be that sort of invisible person who is responsible for making everything work, but doesn’t seek credit. When I went into the civil service 15 years ago, that was exactly what was on my mind. I wanted to make a difference, but I didn’t want the limelight or the credit. If I had wanted it, I would have gone into politics. I think that is part of the deal. Occasionally it does go a little bit sour and you see political leader baiting the civil service, playing into common stereotypes. Bureaucrats and bureaucracy gone mad. The concept that civil servants don’t work as hard as they should etc. That is sort of the caricature of stereotypes that occasionally you see politicians lose. There was no evidence of that at all in this speech. It was just the invisibleness of direct comment to the civil service. Maybe I am more accepting of it than most people, but I certainly lived with it for years and it didn’t bother me at all,” said Kohli.

Do these speeches matter anymore?

“I think they matter. They are an interesting combination of statements. The nature of the State of the Union is that you know that in two or three years time, when you go back to read the State of the Union, you will know that a lot of the things that the President talked about in ambitious tones didn’t happen. You know they didn’t happen because either the White House lost resolve or because somewhere in the system between the Hill and the Supreme Court and the many other actors that needed to be engaged in making change happen, there was a barrier that emerged. Nevertheless, I come from a country that doesn’t have the equivalent of the State of the Union. I still find it an interesting moment in the political climate every year, a moment when the President is able to reveal what he thinks has been achieved and where he thinks the priorities are, and I think it is an agenda setting moment. It is still striking that a number of Americans still tune in and watch it, clearly not as much as the Super Bowl, but it is still a meaningful number of people. I think that is something that is healthy about the US,” said Kohli.

Moments that matter?

“We all remember that moment a few years ago when the President talked about guns and the importance of a vote on guns, it was a poignant moment, but there was never a vote on guns. Most people knew that wasn’t going to happen. Some of the State of the Union is political theater, but I think it is interesting for those who sit far away from Washington, it is a real opportunity to get an insight into what is on the President’s mind and what his priorities are. I wouldn’t want to lose the State of the Union as a feature of US society,” said Kohli.

Biggest applause was for a soldier who had been injured.

“Some of the most interesting moments in the speeches is when they bring attention to the First Lady’s guests. Each one of those guests gets featured. It does remind you that the purpose of the federal government is about real people on the ground. Sometimes in the political arena in Washington, it can feel like the purpose of Washington is to win on some political game and that is not what Washington is there for. Obviously everyone knows that at some level, but I think those featured stories serves as a moment of reminding the city that its purpose is to serve the people and to move the needle on things that really matter to the people of America,” said Kohli.

What should govies have taken away from the speech?

“I should say that the speech was another marker of the importance of defining things that matter to the American people. The fact that he opened the speech in the way that he did, I thought was particularly interesting and is always good when a President underlines that. I think the speech is a little preview of the budget. The budget is a moment when we will get a much clearer sense to the extent to which those things are important. As you know, this is the first year that the GPRA modernization officially goes live. Each agency will publish strategic plans alongside the budget. Each agency will publish new goals alongside the budget. There will be new cross-agency goals. So for the government folks, I agree there was not much direct governmental content in the speech. The budget will be where you see all of that content. The fact that the President made a strong statement on deficits and deficits being halved. I think the fact that we have a slightly more comfortable fiscal situation now then we have for some time, and slightly more agreement on the way to move forward, it feels like this is a budget where there is a greater chance for the President’s priorities to be less contested in Congress. There is a greater chance that we will get a whole year of appropriations. For me, the speech from a governmental perspective was a bit of a preview for the budget,” said Kohli.

A two year budget deal feels huge?

“I come from the UK where about 10 years ago we introduced the idea of three year budgeting. It had a huge impact on the way government worked and thought. People could plan. Many of the reforms that lead to government working more efficiently, they are reforms that play out over a period of time. If you’re planning cycle is two to three months in advance it is almost impossible to ever implement those reforms. For example, your budget goes down all of the sudden, all you can do is change the things that are very easy to change. You can send people home. You can cut a contract or two. You can slash a grant or two. But none of that is really about planning and figuring out what is the best way to reorganize the nature of your work in a way to have significant impact in the world.

Management issues matter, there was little mention in the State of the Union. Does that frustrate you?

“I think you have to recognize what the State of the Union is. It is a moment for the President to connect with the American people. It is a moment of political theater. It is a moment of love level partisianship. There is a veneer that everyone likes each other. In reality there are little jabs going off in every direction. They are not going to be going around talking about the importance of federal workers. They are not going to be talking about the specifics of GPRA modernization. That’s fine. I don’t think it matters to me whether those words get mentioned. It matters to me whether the overall content and the direction of the content is a direction that recognizes that the government is there to serve the American people. It is there to move the needle on the things the American people care about. Government needs to continue to improve in order to be effective in that area. All of those messages were present in this speech,” said Kohli.

No mention of government reorg?

“One year the President talked about reorganizing government specifically. He didn’t do anything as big as that this year. But the reality is that reorganizing government didn’t happen, because Congress didn’t let it happen. That wasn’t surprising to any of us that were listening to the speech on that day. I care less about whether we get a headline on government reform. I care more about whether the content of what the President is talking about connects with what the importance of government serving the American people on the things that matter most are there,” said Kohli.

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