Put people first

In numerous reviews of President Bush's first 100 days in office, many decried his unkept campaign promises. But there's one slogan — making government run more like a business — that the Bush administration is poised to put into action.

The phrase has been around for years, starting as a mantra and ending up as a cliche. But officials such as Sean O'Keefe, deputy director for the Office of Management and Budget, have made it clear that they intend to follow through, funding agencies based on how well they meet predefined performance standards.

Critics will probably dismiss it as a reinvention of the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act, which to date hasn't changed much. But Bush officials plan more than lip service — they intend to drop the fiscal hammer by next year.

O'Keefe said May 1 that accountability was a top management priority. In 2003, "you'll see the beginnings of a series of performance metrics that will be identified across functions," he said, adding that capital planning objectives will be a "dominant piece" of performance measures.

If successful, this could mean a more efficient, more responsible government. Can't argue with that.

But whom will they hammer? In all agencies and at all levels, critical positions — such as those for chief information and financial officers, program managers and others — are vacant or will be soon. "Acting" managers in many cases are working above their pay grades, doing their own jobs and those of their former bosses to keep agencies on track.

The reward for those managers — who don't rate the bigger title or the pay — should not be a reprimand for poor performance, a situation that they neither created nor have the authority to fix.

These days, the crises at agencies are personnel shortages. The four-month hiring freeze is essentially over but, coupled with a slow hiring process, it has left too few people to get the job done. To be sure, the administration has some high-level jobs to fill — an ambassador to the United Nations, federal judges and a permanent deputy director for management at OMB to name a few — but officials can't lose sight of the empty managers' chairs at the agencies.

So before they put the bottom line upfront, Bush administration officials must also make people a priority. It's tough to manage anything well without managers.

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