In the Spring 2008 Special Issue of The Public Manager, nearly 20
current and former government executives, academicians, and private
and nonprofit sector leaders outlined a management agenda for the
incoming 44th President of the United States. Those authors were
part of a luncheon seminar series in 2007 and 2008 organized by
Ciscos Business Solutions Group, the companys global consulting
In that issue, the authors outlined where and how our next
government should differ. The ideas were grouped into four
categories: human resources (HR), acquisition, technology, and
execution. Together, they began to describe a new model of
government. There was no reason, they argued then, that government
cannot operate with as much speed, responsiveness, and resiliency
as the private sector. In fact, there is no reason government
should not be the leader when it comes to technology adoption,
human capital management, and service delivery.
The articles also discussed how the government should go about
accomplishing a transformation; what the president and executive
management team should do differently; as well as the topics that
deserved their attention early in the first term.
Its been one year since a healthy majority of American voters
elected Barack Obama to change America. Within his first few months
in office, President Obama signed the largest economic recovery
package in a generation and significantly boosted government
assistance to banks and auto manufactures. His administration has
augmented the role of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, has moved to
categorically renounce torture and set a deadline for closing the
Guantanamo prison, and is working to withdraw combat troops from
Iraq. The president nominated the first Hispanic to the Supreme
Court, accepted the scientific consensus on climate change, and
invested in green jobs and a smart grid. Finally, his
administration is working on healthcare reform. Indeed, Obama is
addressing the major issues facing Americansand he received a Nobel
Peace Prize, too.
At the time of publication, the president will have been in office
for approximately one year. So we reassembled almost all the
original contributorsand added just a few new onesand asked them to
assess the Obama Management Agenda.
The Management Agenda
In the opening article of the Spring 2008 Special Issue, Professor
Donald F. Kettl argued that never before have we so badly needed
new and big ideas on government management and never before have we
so badly needed strong managers and leaders in government.
He wrote: No self respecting president can enter office without a
management planA management plan conveys important signals to key
players. The federal executive branchs 2.6 million employees look
for clues about where the new boss will take them. Private
consultants tune their radar in search of new opportunities. More
importantly, those who follow the broad strategies of government
management seek to devise how the new president will approach the
job of chief executive, where priorities will lie, and what tactics
the president will follow in pursuing them. Management matterswith
each new administration, the fresh question is how?
The signals on how management mattered came early. In his inaugural
address, President Obama said, The question we ask today is not
whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it
works. He added, And those of us who manage the publics dollars
will be held to account, to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do
our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore
the vital trust between a people and their government.
The very next day, his first full day in office, the presidents
earliest directive was a Memorandum for the Heads of Executive
Departments and Agencies on Transparency and Open Government. Obama
stated on January 21, 2009:
- government should be transparent
- government should be participatory
- government should be collaborative.
He appointed Jeff Zients as the governments first chief performance
officer and Vivek Kundra as its first chief information officer in
the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB). He appointed Aneesh
Chopra as the governments first chief technology officer in the
U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Six Major Themes
In early May 2009, the president sent the FY 2010 budget to
Congress. In the Analytical Perspectives volume that accompanies
the budget message, the administration indicated that they were
developing a new management and performance agenda based around the
- Putting performance first; replacing the Bush-era Program
Assessment Rating Tool (PART) with a new performance improvement
and analysis framework.
- Ensuring responsible spending of American Recovery and
Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 funds.
- Transforming the federal workforce. Noting the pending
retirement wave of federal employees, the administration indicated
a focus on recruiting and retaining new talent and implementing
21st century systems and processes to acquire, develop, engage,
compensate, recognize, and effectively retain talented employees.
- Managing across sectors by partnering with the private and
nonprofit sectors and collaborating across levels of government.
- Reforming federal contracting and acquisition. On March 4,
2009, the president issued a memorandum on government contracting
that instructed the director of OMB to issue guidance on reviewing
contracts; maximizing use of competitive procurement processes;
using all contract types appropriately; assessing the capacity and
ability of the federal acquisition workforce to develop, manage,
and oversee acquisitions appropriately; and clarifying when
outsourcing is and is not appropriate.
- Installing transparency, technology, and participatory
democracy. Transparency promotes accountability and provides
information for citizens about what the government is doing.
Technology increasingly allows the government to provide citizens
with improved access to information about the use of tax dollars
and with the opportunity to give feedback. It is critical that the
government manage its information technology program effectively
and securely while addressing privacy concerns.
Four Key Barriers
As yet, there isnt a high-profile label for this new performance
and management agenda; no Reform 88, no Thousand Points of Light,
no Reinventing Government. There isnt even a Presidents Management
Agenda (PMA). Rather, the administration is focused on four key
barriers to improving federal performance, which Zients has
indicated that he has personally encountered:
- a lack of focus on management by senior political leaders
- failed efforts at upgrading the governments information
- an overly cumbersome contracting process
- an equally burdensome federal hiring process.
There is a strong alignment between the guidance and
recommendations offered by our team of expert authors and the
initial actions of this new president and his management team.
A partial listing would include abandoning old fights and engaging
union leadership (Thompson), building on e-government shared
services initiatives (Sindelar et al.), enhancing and expanding
intergovernmental collaboration (Kellar and ONeill; McClure and
Dorris), a national broadband strategy (Hughes), revisiting
guidance on what constitutes inherently governmental (Burman),
making improved performance the presidents thing (Tobias), and so
In fact, while reviewing the special issue, I quickly found almost
20 recommendations made by our team of experts and executives that
have appeared as part of the new performance and management agenda.
A few deserve special mention to demonstrate this strong
In his initial article two years ago, Looking Ahead: A Human
Resources Strategy, W. Frederick Thompson called into question the
relevance of the classification and the General Schedule (GS)
system established many years ago. He outlined some assumptions
implicit in the current GS pay system and proposed changes. Among
those changes was replacing the specific GS grade structure with a
broad structure of three or four levels of job mastery.
On November 2, 2009, John Berry, director of the U.S. Office of
Personnel Management (OPM), hinted that he believes the GS system
needs a major overhaul. What would replace it? Berry suggested
career ladders with three stages: apprentice, journey-level, and
Lets stay with OPM and Director Berry for another striking
parallel. Stephen Benowitz, in his initial article, Human
CapitalThe Most Critical Asset, advocated convening a task force
representing the federal agencies, employees and their
representatives, and other key stakeholders to develop practical
and politically acceptable changes to the federal personnel system.
On October 28, 2009, the Harvard Kennedy School, along with the
University of Maryland and OPM, held a six-hour meeting of
administration officials, members of Congress, Capitol Hill
staffers, employee organization heads, private-sector leaders, and
academics to overhaul the personnel employment process.
Ciscos Internet Business Solutions Group (IBSG) began this effort
more than two years ago to contribute to a management agenda for
the upcoming 44th President of the United States. Simon Willis,
vice president of the public sector for IBSG, said then: We hope
these articles can begin an important dialogue in the months
leading up to Election Day and during the transition that follows.
That dialogue began, and it continues one year into the first term
of President Barack Obama.
Government for the Future
As the presidents new management and performance agenda moves
forward (assuming that it does and these issues remain an important
priority), a new model for government is likely to emerge. That
likelihood is heightened not only by a dynamic, young chief
executive and the management team he has convened, but it is driven
by a confluence of factorsa perfect management stormthat will force
us toward a 21stcentury government:
Agility and Accountability
Whether this is a stealth revolution as Kettl argues in his article
or something more obvious is less important than the clear
reshaping of how government works. Government must be more agile
and accountable to meet the problems and challenges that will
develop and evolve more rapidly than our traditional models can
In addition, the new government needs to be more nimble and
responsive. The failures following 9/11 and Katrina highlight that
management lapses can impose serious political consequences and
greater accountability is called for.
Engagement and Execution
In acquisition, government must do a better job of engaging and
managing a contact workforce that now works in partnership with
government employees to deliver essential services to our citizens
To achieve results, government must be able to execute. It must be
able to deliver on the policy promises made in the campaign and
It must focus on management, not only because citizens are
skeptical, but also because difficult economic and budgetary times
and new challenges demand it. For the people, the pending workforce
crisis provides an opportunity to reshape government, flatten
hierarchies, recreate the way government and citizens interact, and
change the culture of the bureaucracy.
Our 44th president has an opportunity to reshape the government,
public services, and policies that limit our global competitive
posture. President John F. Kennedys inaugural address in January
1961 inspired a whole generation of young people to enter public
service with his call to: Ask not what your country can do for you;
ask what you can do for your country.
Fifty years later, our new president must rally and challenge a new
generation to join in creating a 21st century government.
What needs to be done? The federal government can take five steps
to get on the road to transformation. The articles in this forum
suggest that the Obama Administration has already started down a
path to success.