2008 Watch List: Completing the picture

Bush administration officials vow to advance the President’s Management Agenda while there is still time

Mort Downey, former deputy secretary of the Transportation Department in the Clinton administration, said he made a mistake his final year in office. That mistake has become a lesson that senior political leaders often retell as they ponder their own fate in the waning months of an administration.

Downey said he tried unsuccessfully to push through new policies for highway and transit planning and revamp safety regulations for overseas aircraft repair stations.

In hindsight, he would have taken a different tack, he said.

Downey, who is now chairman at PB Consult, a management consulting firm, said political officials in the Bush administration should heed the lesson he learned the hard way. “We wanted to leave a legacy and nail down policy changes. In almost every case, we ran out of time. The safety regulations died on the secretary’s desk Jan. 20.”

Downey added that in the final year of any administration, it is better to continue on a path that has been laid rather than launch new initiatives. “The challenge is to build a platform for continuity,” he said. “It is not time to do radical change or go in a new policy direction.”

Clay Johnson, deputy director of management at the Office of Management and Budget, said he plans to do exactly what Downey recommends. Every OMB initiative has been about improving agency management, he said, and the next 12 months will be no different.

OMB intends to spend that time “tackling the next phase of something that we maybe teed up three or four years ago,” Johnson said.

One thing will be different in the next 12 months. OMB will rely mostly on career employees to advance the management initiatives that President Bush introduced early in his first term.

“What we’d rather do is focus, not the politicals, but on what the career employees of the federal government can be accountable for,” Johnson said.

A priorities list
Several senior political leaders said they are comfortable with a strategy that includes no major new OMB initiatives or other projects in the next 12 months.

Pat Pizzella, the Labor Department’s assistant secretary for administration and management and chief information officer, said the department will be busy trying to finish important initiatives that it has started but not yet completed.

“As a rule, we don’t take on projects that take more than 18 months to 24 months,” Pizzella said. “We want to maintain our focus, and that is a challenge. It is easy to be distracted because everyone knows there will be a new president.”

Pizzella quickly named a half-dozen projects on his list of priorities, including GovBenefits, an e-government initiative; Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12, the governmentwide secure identity verification program for federal employees and contractors; a Human Resources Line of Business project involving outsourcing human resources services to a shared-services provider; and a server consolidation project.

“We want to be sure our priorities link to the department’s overall strategic goals,” Pizzella said.

Time is short for new initiatives, but Paul Brubaker, administrator of DOT’s Research and Innovative Technology Administration, said he will be careful with how he moves forward with new ideas.

“If we…get real specific, measure what we want to do and cascade it down in terms of performance plans, we’ll get some performance,” Brubaker said. “We may not hit every target that we measure, but we’ll move the ball forward.”

Career employees
Although career employees have a reputation for resisting political initiatives introduced in the final year of any administration, B ubaker said he will depend on good employees to get things done.

Brubaker said other leaders who expect to lean heavily on career employees in the next 12 months should identify their best performers as early as they possibly can. “You find that a lot of the political officials wind up leaving for the private sector or get moved around, and it’s usually the last year when that happens,” he said.

“I’m starting to see this already where people are thinking about leaving, and you know that they’re not going to stick around to the end.”

Career employees can accomplish much in a year if they have a sense of mission and adequate resources, said Jonathan Breul, a former OMB official who is now executive director at the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He said career employees want to complete initiatives for which they feel a sense of purpose.

When they realize that an administration has a limited amount of time to complete its initiatives, employees often will work that much harder, Breul said.

However, one trend could make it more difficult to get that support from career employees in the next 12 months.At the same time that career workers could be advancing the Bush administration’s management initiatives, the retirement of many experienced employees will affect agencies’ ability to complete those projects.

Mark Forman, former OMB administrator for e-government and IT, said retirements from the federal government are creating a growing leadership vacuum.

“You have a lot of management reform leaders leaving,” said Forman, a partner at KPMG. Those leaders provided the continuity necessary for transforming the government, he said. “They really are the linchpins of success.”

Forman said the recent retirements of senior career officials, including Mary Mitchell, John Sindelar, G.Martin Wagner and Dick Burk, raise questions about what will become of the Bush administration’s e-government initiatives and business consolidation efforts.

“A lot of this will depend on up-and-comers who have gotten engaged and taken ownership,” Forman said. “Typically in transition years, initiatives move from being sponsored by political appointees to being sponsored by up-and-coming career folks.”

Other management experts said budget challenges could have negative consequences for the Bush administration’s management initiatives. For example, Congress passed a White House-approved omnibus bill in late December, but many agencies will not receive fiscal 2008 funding until February, nearly four months after the start of the fiscal year. Those agencies might not receive increases in discretionary spending, making it more challenging for them to address management issues, Breul said.

“OMB is preparing the 2009 request now, and it is very difficult when there is uncertainty,” he said.

Jon Desenberg, consulting director at the Performance Institute, said a recent executive order creating a Performance Improvement Council will help ensure that federal agencies institutionalize the concept that federal programs must demonstrate results.

“If budgets were going up, performance would be secondary,” Desenberg said. But with stagnant or declining federal spending, government leaders must focus on performance, he said. “There is no alternative if they plan on delivering anything.”

In the face of such challenges, Johnson said, the OMB management team will stick to its agenda for improving government until the final day of the Bush administration.  

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