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

I’m a Former Federal Manager And I Voted For Trump

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Then candidate Donald Trump on the campaign trail in 2016. Then candidate Donald Trump on the campaign trail in 2016. Gino Santa Maria/Shutterstock.com

I voted for Donald Trump. It was not an enthusiastic vote. I’m probably as apprehensive of big change as the next fellow and some of his statements put me on edge. But I had grown very disappointed in the Obama administration. I came to see many of President Obama’s policies as mostly divisive social engineering and as dissipating U.S. leadership in a troubled world. I thought his lack of executive experience hobbled him in creating a consensus among differing views. I believe he saw everything through a political lens. Hillary Clinton’s promise to follow Obama’s policies eliminated any prospect she had of getting my vote.

I was born, raised and educated in New York City. I am a real estate guy long active in private development and investment. I believe, as Calvin Coolidge said, that the business of America is business. When our economy is expanding at a vigorous pace our people tend to be content and when America is strong and assertive the world is a better place. I also had a long career as a real estate executive with the General Services Administration. I have read all of Trump’s books—not because I particularly admired the guy but because I developed a couple of major projects for the feds in the City. So Donald and I have common interests and I think I understand both his lingo and the turmoil some folks in government might feel from his style of governance. I would like to share my perspective of our new president and how he may see his job.

Avoid Stockholm Syndrome

“It’s remarkable how quickly they adapt to and are absorbed by the system.” A senior OMB appointee made that remark to me during the Reagan Administration. The point he was making is that political appointees are quickly captured by the career civil servants or more generally by “the system.” I saw it happen through several Administrations. The career professionals would persuade new appointees that the safe path was to continue to do things the way they had always been done. The career folks would counsel that the government is “different.” Whatever experience the appointees brought from the private sector was not applicable to government, they said. The incumbents argued that getting things done in government took more time and cost more money because of rules and regulations. Poorly performing personnel could not be dismissed or disciplined as they could be in the private sector because of personnel rules and regulations. Things were more expensive and took longer to acquire because of procurement rules and regulations. The appointees, committed to the kinds of change represented, for example, by President Reagan, gradually became apologists for the status quo. It was a kind of bureaucratic Stockholm syndrome. I don’t think Donald Trump will adjust to the system—he expects the system to change to suit him.

Results Matter  

Over the years I did lots of real estate deals for the government. I don’t recall anyone ever asking whether any of my procurements were good deals. That is, were they structured on the right terms and at the right price? The bureaucracy saw me as a program manager responsible for “procurements.” It was as though “deal” was a four letter word. My performance was typically measured by whether my procurements were conflict or protest free. I can’t tell you how envious I was of people in procurement positions like mine when President Trump said the cost of Air Force One was exorbitant. In doing that, he was saying price matters. Working for someone with that kind of perspective should empower federal officials to assert the kind of initiative to make sure the people’s money is properly invested. In the federal procurement culture we hear a lot about the integrity of the procurement process. Who is in charge of promoting the best deal results of the procurement system? Let me suggest that we now have a president who takes on that responsibility. Of course, the propriety of the process matters but so do the results. That’s what I hear the president saying: “Get the job done properly but make sure you get good deals.”

Consistency Is Overrated  

It has long seemed to me that the worst sin a public official can make is to be inconsistent. I think of it as Chuck Todd Syndrome. Todd’s “Meet the Press” interviews are usually about finding conflicts in someone’s public statements or actions. How often have you heard him and others in the media ask in an interview something like “then, how do you explain what you said during the campaign? Run the clip.” Any inconsistency must mean that the person being interviewed has changed his or her tune for some base personal or political purpose. Maybe they simply changed their mind. Or ,possibly, the earlier position needs to be abandoned to achieve a higher purpose. Take, for example, dropping the position that China is a currency manipulator because the president is soliciting China’s support to control North Korea. What’s wrong with being inconsistent if it keeps the other side off guard? That’s called negotiating.

Consistency is not the objective; getting the best deal is.

It’s Not Lying; It’s Hondling  

How many of us have said “I would love to give you your price on that car. But if I paid that my wife would kill me.” Back in New York we call that “wifing the deal.” I often used the approach in government when I thought I could squeeze more cost out of a deal. Downcast, with furrowed brow, I would tell the contractor I had to call Washington before I could finalize the transaction. I would leave the room to make a call that might never be made and come back after a reasonable interval and tell my counterpart that I needed a lower price or better terms for any hope of getting the procurement approved. Was I lying? Who cares? I was doing my job; I was simply hondling. That’s New Yorkese for bargaining. So the frequent accusations that Trump is lying is often merely him setting the table to hondle for the best deal. Try to think of his confident pledge that Mexico will pay for the wall or that the United States will impose trade tariffs as chips to be used in the much larger deal of renegotiating trade and other relationships like NAFTA with one of our largest commercial partners, Mexico.

It’s About Winning

Trump, unlike his predecessors, did not spend years in government. He didn’t take the course on avoiding even the appearance of a conflict of interest. He was not trained on walking a verbal tightrope or flack catching. He didn’t learn to spin or be defensive in everything he says and does. He came from a world where they measure your performance by your runs, hits and the final score. He’s not so good on defense; it’s all about offense. It’s less about avoiding mistakes and all about winning.   

Governance As Sailing

Trump has a strong pro business and American leadership agenda. He’s heading in that direction, but, he approaches governance like he approaches his business—it’s all about tacking as though sailing. He will always be heading toward his goals but he will be constantly tacking one way or another depending on conditions. By contrast, I think prior administrations approached governance like driving. They announced their destination at the outset to friend and foe alike. Then they headed as fast as possible toward their goal, mindless to changes and the negative consequences of all that speed.

Let’s Try This His Way  

My last assignment in government was with Vice President Al Gore’s National Performance Review. The goal of the NPR was to “reinvent” the government. The NPR was mostly an attempt to adapt private practices to the way government conducts its business. By the time I started at the NPR I had concluded that rules and regulations generally were not the problem.  Rather, the main reason government underperforms in comparison to the business sector is the  difference in incentives. Government simply lacked the right incentives—most notably, there was no competitive incentive to improve outcomes. I was enthusiastic about the NPR but disappointed by the results. I came to think of the NPR as a noble attempt at reform, but because it was created and run by incumbents it lacked the energy and drive to make real change. We have now elected a 70-year-old business executive not so much to reform government but to fundamentally change government. Maybe it’s best to take him at his word that his family owes a lot to this country and he saw it heading in the wrong direction. He’s a deal maker and a negotiator. I don’t think he plans to adjust his approach to accommodate the status quo or the media’s view of what’s acceptable.

I think Trump has made superb selections for his vice president and cabinet, and as citizens we should be grateful for these folks’ service. They’re not doing it for the money. The president’s critics have cast aspersions on his cabinet as a bunch of billionaires. I think we should be thankful for the service of such successful people. Just think about the likes of Betsy DeVos leading the Education Department. She has spent her time and considerable wealth to reform a failing national public education system. She must now lead an entrenched bureaucracy on a fundamentally new course toward infusing a competitive incentive into our educational system.  As a former bureaucrat of long standing, I doubt she’s found many advocates for her agenda among the staff. I would not want to be her entering Education’s headquarters every morning.

For weeks after the election I awoke every morning apprehensive about the things he was saying and doing. All the negative media probably did not help. Over time, though, I think I’ve come to understand his modus operandi. I like what I see. The change is real this time.

Patrick J. Keogh served for nearly 30 years at the General Services Administration, where he was program manager of lease development from 1988 to 1992. He was assigned to the National Performance Review from 1992 to 1993. He is an attorney and manages a family office, splitting his time between Austin, Texas, and Reston, Virginia.

Image via Gino Santa Maria/Shutterstock.com.

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