OMB issued a memo yesterday entitled “Promoting Public Trust in the Federal Government and Effective Policy Implementation through Interagency Review and Coordination of the American Rescue Plan Act.” OMB numbers some of its memos and this one is M-21-24. Apropos of my tendency to gush about OMB and the relative paucity of click-baity listicles on this blog, here’s a list of things I love about this memo.
- The framing. The memo says that “[e]ffective review and interagency coordination are key to ensuring the unprecedented Government-wide response is effective in meeting the needs of the American public.” There have always been skeptics about OIRA’s review, and OIRA has taken some lumps in the last few years in particular. This memo shakes that off and leans in to the idea that OIRA review helps the government serve the people. Coming just after 3 months of the Biden Administration, it suggests to me that the OIRA process is serving the Biden team well because the framing is authoritative and not apologetic. Essentially the memo says: review takes time, and that time is worth it. I wouldn’t have spent 10+ years doing that work if I didn’t agree, though I understand that YMMV.
- The public commitment to speedy reviews. At the same time, regulations and the other materials that flow through OIRA are often essential responses to incredibly pressing problems. It is in keeping with the goals of the American Rescue Plan to move its implementation along swiftly. OIRA and the rest of OMB have been working around the clock and with very short turnaround times to help coordinate the federal government’s response to the pandemic. Commitments like this are a sign to me that OMB is sensitive to being seen as—and does not want to be seen as—a roadblock. That said: surges like this cannot be maintained forever, and while I am not someone who thinks that OIRA needs to be a lot larger than it is today, I do worry about resources to maintain this sprint.
- The scope. The memo notes that it applies to regs, guidance, and “items not typically subject” to review under EO 12866. Guidance is an important addition here because after President Biden revoked President Trump’s guidance-related executive orders, there have been questions about what that means for OIRA’s review of guidance documents (a long history there that goes beyond the scope of this humble post). With regard to the “items not typically subject” to EO 12866 review, the memo explains that “[c]asting a broader net than our typical reviews is intended as a mechanism to facilitate coordination across agencies—a must with so many interacting authorities and areas of expertise central to the Federal Government’s response efforts.” This is an endorsement of OIRA’s ability to run a good interagency process on complex policy documents with short fuses. This is one area where OIRA’s analysts really shine, and—as we’d say on twitter—you love to see it.
- The direction on equity & evidence. The memo references the Presidential Memorandum Modernizing Regulatory Review, and notes that “OIRA will ask during review whether agencies have fully considered equity impacts in making implementation choices, in support of the requirements outlined in Executive Order 13985, Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government,” with emphasis on “questions of how to reduce burdens and expand access to underserved communities in implementing the relief and recovery provisions of the statute.” These are some of the first glimpses into how OMB will implement the modernization memo. While exactly how OMB will assess equity is unclear, this shows me it is a priority. Just calling the question on equity is an improvement over the status quo, so while it appears modest, I am supportive of the way the memo plants a flag. It also says OMB will “emphasize evidence-based decision making” with reference to the Presidential Memorandum on Restoring Trust in Government through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking. OMB applies a lot of different lenses when it does its review, so highlighting these two is a signal of its priorities. Equity & evidence are great ones!
- The OIRA day-to-day weeds. I get a lot of questions from people asking what it’s like to work in OIRA. This memo offers a glimpse into the weeds of it. Page 2 of the memo, in particular, sets out expectations about how OMB wants to work with the agencies (e.g., parsing the difference between “urgent” and “imminent” (!) and the role of political appointees in establishing priorities). And as much as you see OMB commit to fast turn-around times in this memo, you can also see them trying to reclaim the weekends for everyone. I could write a whole book about stuff I was asked to get done outside of business hours (but I won’t!). While some amount of after-hours work is normal for OMB, especially in a pandemic, I appreciate the effort to get the policy process into some semblance of regular order.
- The reminder about the Paperwork Reduction Act. While I admit its implementation needs to be spruced up, I’m an unabashed supporter of the PRA. Why? Because of its elegant premise that the government needs to balance the practical utility of information it collects against the burdens it imposes. The memo reminds agencies that the PRA might apply to American Resuce Plan actions and also that there are emergency flexibilities available to comply with the law. I always enjoy a good PRA reference, so I’ll have this be my closing point.
These are just six thoughts on yesterday’s memo. I’m sure there are others, and of course there is room for disagreement on what it all means. I’m sharing my quick views here, and I hope they’re helpful to you as we look for ways to understand the new administration. Also, if you’ve read this far (!) you might enjoy following the EOPbot on twitter, which tweets out OMB memos and more. I’m a big fan.