With clear popular and electoral vote victories, hugely favorable ratings in the polls, and a tremendous surge of excitement surrounding his inauguration as our 44th president, Barack Obama certainly could hope, perhaps even expect, that his ambitious policy agenda would meet with success in Washington's corridors of power.
Resistance quickly surfaced to some of his appointees, elements of the fiscal stimulus package and other aspects of his program. But if the public's enthusiasm about Obama endures, he might succeed in creating a movement of citizens who want different policies and would bend their efforts to persuade neighbors and politicians that change is needed. His 2008 campaign built the foundation on which such a movement could thrive.
Obama believes that change "really comes from the ground up, not from Washington," as then-Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., said in December. Salazar (who now is secretary of Interior) was participating in the Obama team's first effort to engage citizens in a key issue, reforming health care. Outreach began with a phone conference led by Tom Daschle, then designee as secretary of Health and Human Services, with 1,000 of 10,000 Obama supporters who had expressed interest in health care. It continued with so-called house parties for change held across the country at the end of the year.
These initiatives were part of what Obama's team christened OFA 2.0, after Obama for America, the campaign committee.
Organizers hope for nothing less than a national grass-roots-driven renewal of civic engagement. Change.gov, the Obama transition team's Web site, showed the way in December by asking citizens for views on effecting social change. Change.gov has now become WhiteHouse.gov, and the "movement" has shifted to a new site called Organizing for America, hosted by the Democratic National Committee. With a bank of 13 million e-mail addresses, OFA will be used to support local candidates, lobby for the president's agenda and keep connected to Obama's grass-roots backers.
By rising above the heads of special interest groups and lobbyists, a grass-roots movement could be powerful in driving the goals of the new president. But it would do little to ensure effective implementation. For that, Obama will have to rely on civil service and military personnel numbering more than 3 million. To be sure, many new people now want to join the government, but the administration can directly hire only a tiny fraction of the huge number of people who have submitted their résumés.
A new book from the National Academy of Public Administration emphasizes the essential role the civil service must play, as it details a menu of reforms still needed. That role is only gaining in importance as Washington deepens its grip on the nation's economy and takes on entirely new functions: part owner of private concerns and financier to an ever-growing list of private and public entities.
Paul A. Volcker, former Federal Reserve chairman and now a key economic adviser to Obama, writes the foreword to the book, Innovations in Human Resources Management: Getting the Public's Work Done in the 21st Century (M.E. Sharpe Inc., 2009). Volcker, the quintessential public servant, reflects on his work as chairman of the National Commission on the Public Service, whose 2003 report insisted on revitalization of the public service. Progress has come toward some of its goals, but "on the whole, reform has yet to achieve the scope and intensity that is required," he writes.
President Obama, to his great credit, is encouraging people to engage in voluntary public service. We can hope that he also will work toward reforms that will make the federal civil service a more vital and engaging place to be.