After decisions by OMB director and President, OMB tells agency what it can have. This is commonly called the passback. OMB's passback is generally in overall terms, but sometimes goes into trivial detail. The passback may simply limit the funds and headcount for major accounts and give a few specifics - for example, it may specify that a few activities must be continued regardless of funding levels. In some cases it may dictate that specific work be funded in request to be sent to Congress or that certain items not be included.
Decisions have to be made, and they have to be communicated to those affected. The nature of the passback and its details depends on the relationship between the agency and OMB and the President. If the Administration views with favor the programs of the agency, then the OMB passback would be in general terms.
If the Administration views the agency as an entity that needs careful controlling, then the OMB passback may include extensive instructions on what the agency may include in its budget and what it must exclude. Sometimes the passback may combine both approaches.
The management principle used in OMB's passback is that of a "top down" approach, i.e., OMB tells the agency what to do, and there should be no questions asked. This management philosophy may be carried within the agency also, with only a few people being privy to the OMB passback. The reasons for this are the same as those that dictated the nature of the OMB passback.
If the agency is judged to be a "team player" and is in favor with the Administration, there is less reason to challenge the OMB passback and it is more easily managed by a few trusted people. In this case, the agency action is to have a few staffers work a few long days and be done with it.
If, on the other hand, the agency has problems within the Administration, it would need all the help it can get. In this case, distributing the passback more widely would be beneficial. Letting operating components in on the secrets of the passback cannot hurt if you are preparing for a battle with OMB. The passback may also have to be evaluated in great detail, involving much effort and/or technical expertise. In these cases, the agency has no choice but to get operating component officials involved.
The decision on what to do in relation to a passback after analyzing it and assessing it is simple: To appeal or not to appeal.
The first OMB/Presidential decision is communicated to the agency around Thanksgiving. Final decisions are available around Christmas. (For a few exceptions, see To OMB, Timing.)
Documents and Links
No public documents are available. The process is confidential and secretive. The passback document itself may be a sketchy outline of numbers, written in what amounts to code; only those in the know would understand what it means. Sometimes there is not even a written document handed to the agency. Selected agency officials are summoned to OMB, and they are told what the passback is. They may take notes, but no OMB papers are passed to the agency.