Management Matters Management MattersManagement Matters
Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Leading Questions


Nearly every presidential administration begins with a review of the current shape of government -- which agencies are doing what work, at what cost and to what end. The Obama administration is no exception, with the new president promising a top-to-bottom review of federal operations.

Each president has entered office with preferences and assumptions about government, beliefs about management and political prerogatives that help determine the course of their management reviews.

In his 1993 inaugural address, President Bill Clinton pledged a government of "bold, persistent experimentation," and subsequently put Vice President Al Gore in charge of the Reinventing Government initiative. That effort focused heavily on the management concept of employee empowerment. Clinton's team mined the ranks of government employees for ideas to improve the federal bureaucracy. This emphasis on the rank-and-file aligned with Clinton's political alliance with labor unions. His focus on empowerment helped pave the way for union acquiescence to his plans to downsize government -- a move also aided by Clinton's emphasis on the elimination of management and headquarters positions rather than front-line service workers' jobs.

Eight years later, President George W. Bush in his inaugural address emphasized the limits of government, telling Americans that "what you do is as important as anything government does." His President's Management Agenda reflected Bush's MBA background. It was run in a top-down style from the Office of Management and Budget, imposing goals on federal agencies for human resources, technology and performance management --as well as goals for opening government jobs to competition from private contractors. OMB regularly rated agencies' progress on meeting the targets the office set. Bush reversed some of Clinton's power arrangements with unions, in keeping with his administration's political differences with labor unions.

This week, President Barack Obama outlined his initial take on government management. "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works," Obama said during his Jan. 20 inaugural speech. "Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end."

Both Clinton and Bush pursued their management agendas in parallel with the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act, which was Congress' effort to improve management in the agencies. The law requires agencies to set annual and five-year goals and to report on progress toward the achievement of those goals each year. In 1997, Clinton's deputy director for management at OMB, John Koskinen, said the Results Act asked three questions of federal managers:

  • What are we getting for the money we are spending?
  • What are federal programs and organizations trying to achieve?
  • How can the effectiveness of these activities be determined?
The Clinton and Bush administrations approached these questions with different assumptions, and they got different answers. The Obama administration has yet to reveal the assumptions it brings to the task of management review. But every leader has predilections, and those beliefs often are just as important in shaping the answers they get as are the questions that they ask.

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.


Brian Friel is founder of One Nation Analytics, an independent research, analytics and consulting firm for the federal market.

Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.