Take the pledge: 'I will care about management!'

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Two presidents in a row have had their administrations badly wounded by problems with government management: George W. Bush with Hurricane Katrina and Barack Obama with the HealthCare.gov rollout.

Those fiascos are not just bad for presidents, they are bad for America. Only extremist anti-government ideologues can welcome the humiliation our country suffers because of those failures.

There are many talented political executives and senior civil service managers in the federal government who are improving the performance of their agencies. But those efforts are mercilessly swept away like a child's sand castle overwhelmed by a giant wave.

Even important government performance improvements, such as the reduction of backlogs at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office or the progress many agencies have made in reducing improper payments, leave no trace in the public consciousness.

Management is boring, especially for politicians for whom focusing on reports about operational tests for a technology application -- even one as important to Obama as the HealthCare.gov website -- is an unnatural act.

Now, however, we might need to demand that politicians be saved from themselves.

Obviously, presidents cannot and should not manage the entire government. But there is a chasm between that extreme and the current situation. What can Obama proactively do now, and what should his successors do in the future?

I think presidents should have a list, which would obviously change over time, of five hot-button issues for which successful management is important to political and substantive success and that have a high risk of creating big problems for the president.

It is impossible, of course, to predict perfectly which problems will gain media and public traction. But it is a good guess that one issue on any president's list should be the Federal Emergency Management Agency because of the guaranteed high visibility of major natural disasters that are mishandled. And given the importance of health care reform to both Obama and his opponents, it should hardly have taken a rocket scientist to see that management issues with the rollout would be on that list as well.

For those key projects, a president should get regular briefings -- maybe once a month or more often if needed -- on overall status, trouble spots and decision alternatives. I feel confident that developing and following up on such a list would reduce the number of government management fiascos.

What else could Obama do? His administration already has a list of high-priority performance goals, with several for each Cabinet department. Those goals are being tracked by departmental deputy secretaries and the Office of Management and Budget, and key officials get together on a regular basis to discuss progress, obstacles and lessons learned.

It would be a powerful statement of concern about improving the performance of the federal government for the president to choose two or three of those priority goals and become directly involved in the ongoing conversation.

The next election is three years away. A group of distinguished citizens who care about the country and the performance of the government -- some corporate CEOs, university presidents and retired senior journalists perhaps -- could get together to formally focus on that issue. They could ask each of the candidates to take a pledge to pay attention to the management of the federal government and explain how, as president, he or she would demonstrate that concern.

That would be one way to improve the country on which both parties could agree.

About the Author

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Connect with him on Twitter: @kelmansteve

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Reader comments

Fri, Jan 3, 2014

You said "Only extremist anti-government ideologues can welcome the humiliation our country suffers because of those failures. " How you could compare Obamacare to Hurricane Katrina in terms of a management failure is beyond me. One catastrophe was unexpected; the other was expected by most well-read persons. Obama's administration had 3 years to prepare. Katrina happened. Obviously the personnel appointed to head cabinet and executive agencies are not our best or brightest. They are political appointees - the permanent government civilian employees remain. Mediocrity is what you get from big government.

Mon, Dec 30, 2013

Maybe the things that Steve suggests would be good, but none will accomplish much until we reduce the number of political appointees in agency management positions and replace them with truly accountable career senior executives. Steve likes studies, and there are a number that have indicated that political appointees have not made the best managers, by and large. See for example Gilmour and Lewis, "Political Appointees and the Competence of Federal Program Management," American Politics Research, Vol. 34, No. 1 (January 2006). They claimed that programs run by political appointees "get systematically lower management grades than programs run by career senior executives." Their study is available at http://jbgilm.people.wm.edu/apr.pdf. I think they were right, and so do many others.

Mon, Dec 23, 2013

Really a list????? Wow what an idea and a whole column written about it. How do I get your job?

Mon, Dec 23, 2013

But if he knew about the problems he would have to do something about it, instead of looking for scape goats after a disaster. Plausible Deniability, that is the ticket.... "Like all Americans I just learned about this through the media...."

Fri, Dec 20, 2013 Michael-Joseph Mcgroarty U.S.U.H.S.

I do like some of the issues that your organization has at times covered. It has covered jaguars needing to come to Texas during new seasons. The border fence construction has been in these areas. It has also dealt with issues with outsourcing.

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