In addition to being the most powerful person in the world, the
person elected president of the United States also is the chief
executive officer (CEO) of the executive branch of government.
Ordinarily, the organizational results buck stops at a CEOs desk,
but recent presidents have seemed more interested in running
against the machinery of government.
Unlike his predecessors, however, President Obama has chosen to
reverse this trend. He has announced that he plans to adopt a
lead-from-the-top strategy to improve executive branch performance.
Rather than pretend that the executive branch is inhabited by
aliens who operate on a separate planet, President Obama seems to
be taking responsibility for the results of executive branch
Government Performance and Results Act
Prior presidents have complained about executive branch
performance, and some have tried to do something about it. For
example, President Clinton supported and signed the 1993 Government
Performance and Results Act (GPRA), which for the first time
obligated agencies to identify outcome performance goals and the
plans to achieve them.
Program Assessment and Rating Tool
During his term, President George W. Bush created the Program
Assessment and Rating Tool (PART) to supplement the GPRA in
assessing the performance of 1,100 executive branch programs.
Neither President Clinton nor President Bush, however, followed
through on these efforts by, for example, meeting with cabinet
officialsthe presidents direct reportsto discuss policy goals or
the results of their efforts to achieve those goals.
In contrast, President Obama is asking agencies to identify goals
that he will personally monitor and discuss with cabinet officials.
The Analytical Perspectives portion of the Presidents 2010 Budget
asks each major agency to identify a limited set of high-priority
goals, supported by meaningful measures and quantitative targets.
Obama then states he will do what no other recent president has
done: meet personally with cabinet officers to review their
progress toward meeting their performance improvement targets.
There is a wide gap between public policy creation and its
implementation. Washington, D.C., is filled with people who make
policyor wish they did. Implementing policy in the workplace,
however, requires a different focus and consistent contact between
creation and implementation. By pledging publicly to meet regularly
with cabinet officers about whether they have met their performance
objectives, President Obama has assumed responsibility for
implementing public policy.
While presidents have regularly met with cabinet officers to
discuss policy development, they have not generally concerned
themselves with its implementation. When a president spends his
personal time on an issue, it sends an emphatic message to the
executive branch that the issue is important. Political appointees
understand that improving performance will reflect favorably on
them, and they may now look to the U.S. Office of Management and
Budget (OMB) and the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) for
Strategy for Improved Government Performance
The tactical strategy for creating increased government performance
has been identified by OMB and OPM:
- OMB Director Peter Orszag has called for agencies to identify
their high-priority goals; create 2011 budget submissions that
identify how agencies will better their standing in the Best Places
to Work in the Federal Government survey; and conduct rigorous,
independent program evaluations to determine whether government
programs are achieving their intended outcomes as well as possible,
and at the lowest possible cost.
- Chief Performance Officer and OMB Deputy Director for
Management Jeffrey Zients indicates that the administration will
focus on improving the Bush Administrations Program Assessment and
Rating Tool; urge agencies to incorporate performance results into
their decisions about improving performance; and, because the
government has missed most of the private-sector productivity gains
made possible by information technology, develop better information
technology in the federal government.
- OPM Director John Berry and Zients have called for creating a
faster, better government hiring process.
- Berry also has ordered a new governmentwide performance
evaluation system that links individual performance with agency
goals and objectives.
These tactical strategies are not entirely new; they have been
advanced by prior directors of OPM and OMB and by good government
groups, but they have not been implemented. OPM has been seen as a
nag without teeth, and OMB as a hammer without nails when it comes
to improving government performance. What has been missing is
personal, presidential attention.
Presidential Vision and Leadership
Because the president is interested in improving performance,
meaningful conversations will occur in agencies about how to
increase performance. OPMs ideas for prompt hiring of the best and
the brightest, employee engagement, training, leadership
development, and effective succession planning become grist for the
discussion mill. Likewise, OMBs call for program evaluation as data
for program improvement, better technology, and the methodology for
measuring results becomes critical to achieving success.
If the discussion about improving performance among department
political appointees turns from the abstract to the concrete,
policy implementation will include career leaders at all levels,
together with bargaining among unit employees, to define the
changes needed and obtain support.
Federal employees will welcome the opportunity to improve the
performance of their agency. As McKinsey & Co. found in a
recent survey of Government Executive subscribers, government
managers understand and embrace the direction and vision of their
organization and are motivated to make a difference. This is true
in the federal sector more than in the private sector and applies
to both managers and nonmanagers.
The labor-management partnering activities during the Clinton
Administration revealed that federal-sector unions and the
bargaining unit employees they represent want to improve government
performance. What the McKinsey study found is that the missing link
between workers and performance improvement was a dearth of
management practices related to fostering employee engagement,
talent management, and accountability.
The Obama approach to performance management has the chance to
capitalize on employee motivation to make a difference and will
provide incentives to remove the barriers to substantially improve
individual and agency performance in the federal sector. The
question is whether Obamas promise to personally focus on public
policy implementation will be fulfilled.