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Memos to the President: How to Run Government Effectively

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Political campaigns are a time of promises. Transitions are a time of frantic preparation. And then, perhaps too soon, it’s time to govern. Governing is the hard work of turning promises into legislation, budgets, actions and results.

For the transition currently underway, the stakes are tremendously high. Large portions of the electorate say they are frustrated or disillusioned by what they see as the failure of governing institutions to deliver. Elected leaders have come to share this frustration. Indeed, while presidents have left positive legacies, recent administrations of both parties have experienced disheartening failures and shortfalls of execution ranging from disaster response during Hurricane Katrina to the crash of the Healthcare.gov website.

To help the incoming administration and Congress, the National Academy of Public Administration and the American Society of Public Administration teamed up with George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government to commission a series of memos highlighting the best advice from leading academics and practitioners in public administration. A total of 25 Memos to National Leaders were published several weeks ago. They address five broad areas of policy and management:

  • Managing Government to Achieve National Objectives: What strategies should the president adopt to improve the central leadership of government programs and agencies?
  • Strengthening Policy Leadership and Follow Through: What are the most promising decision-making procedures and implementation approaches the next administration can use to effectively shape and follow through on its policy commitments?
  • Managing Across Boundaries to Achieve National Goals: How can the new administration develop new, effective strategies for policy and administrative collaboration across boundaries—between federal agencies, across levels of government, between government and the private and nonprofit sectors, and across global boundaries?
  • Sharpening the Tools of Government Action: How can government outcomes be achieved effectively when government relies on independent actors through financial, regulatory and contractual vehicles?
  • Increasing Government’s Capacity to Manage Complex Policy Issues: What unique policy design and management challenges are characteristic of the most important policy issues of our time?

The memos depict the clash between growing demands on government and institutional realities and constraints. While government has come under pressure to meet ever-higher expectations, it has become increasingly difficult to deliver on the promises made by its leaders. This is due in part to the growing complexity of government’s role. A government that once was focused on delivering the mail and collecting taxes is now challenged to rebuild the nation’s financial system, ensure safe drinking water and improve education across a diverse nation.

With increasing polarization of views among leaders and the public alike, consensus about the role of government itself has eroded. How can government agencies operate effectively when Congress and the White House, interest groups and clients are riven by conflicts over priorities and goals on such issues as climate change, education reform and tax administration? Moreover, agencies face an increasingly blame-seeking environment with a 24-hour news cycle, in which divided constituencies deploy weaponized social media to mobilize followers and dramatize differences. Such pressures tend to discourage the risk-taking and innovation many believe are necessary for government to improve performance.

As government’s role evolves, our reliance on nonfederal actors to implement national goals increases. We are now in the habit of uploading promises and downloading responsibility to states, localities, nonprofit organizations, private businesses and citizens. While such changes in the way government functions can enhance our collective capacity to achieve national objectives, they also complicate accountability. Delegating the task of governing to others does not relieve federal agencies or presidents of responsibility or blame.

In this environment, deep-seated policy implementation and management challenges require a long-term strategy to instill urgency and institute reforms to achieve ambitious and complex goals. While the media and public often view management problems as caused by short-term leadership or situational factors, in fact the failures of government programs typically stem from chronic and perennial shortfalls in management capacity, misaligned incentives, poor use of technology, and weak cross-sector collaboration—coupled with overly hyped goals and expectations.

Often these implementation challenges come to our attention in a crisis. At that point, they can deal a crippling blow to an administration. So it’s critical that management issues be addressed early in a president’s term.

The Memos to National Leaders aim to facilitate that process. Government Executive will publish several of them over the next few weeks:

  • Staffing the President’s Team, by James Pfiffner of George Mason University. Recommends ways to streamline and expedite the appointments process to satisfy the competing needs of the White House, federal agencies and Congress.

  • Reforming the Federal Budget Process, by Steve Redburn and Paul Posner of George Mason University. Proposes approaches to reinvent the budget process to strengthen discipline, improve certainty and heighten focus on long-term fiscal outcomes.

  • Performance Accountability, Evidence and Improvement, by Shelley Metzenbaum and Robert Shea, leaders of governmentwide performance improvement efforts under Presidents Obama and Bush, respectively. Looks back at initiatives from recent administrations to promote reforms to better integrate performance data into the decision-making process in the executive branch and Congress.

  • Collaboration Across Boundaries, by Donald F. Kettl of the University of Maryland. Brings together what we have learned about how to promote greater collaboration across agencies, levels of government and sectors. 

  • Strengthening Partnerships with State and Local Governments, by Barry Vanlare, formerly of the National Governors Association, and Timothy Conlan of George Mason University. Develops an agenda for generating closer relationships across levels of government in setting objectives and carrying out federal programs on the ground.

  • Improving the Role of Public-Private Partnerships, by John Donahue of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Reviews the experiences with public-private partnerships and harvests lessons learned about managing these initiatives to balance benefits and potential risks.

  • Procurement: Focusing on Performance and Results, by Steve Kelman, of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Provides an agenda to improve accountability for performance under contracts, entailing greater use of pay-for-success models, more transparent information on pricing and more emphasis on post-award monitoring and assessment.

  • Infrastructure: Building a New Paradigm for Finance and Governance, by Mark Pisano of the University of Southern California and John Bartle of the University of Nebraska. Recommends new approaches to engage private business and beneficiaries in co-financing infrastructure, while building more collaborative partnerships with states and localities.

These memos chart strategies for tackling some of the most important issues that the new administration will face. Together, they provide a road map for renewing trust in government’s ability to deliver the services that citizens want and expect.

Donald F. Kettl is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Volcker Alliance. He is the author of many books, including Escaping Jurassic Government: How to Recover America's Lost Commitment to Competence, The Politics of the Administrative Process, System Under Stress and The Next Government of the United States. Kettl is a two-time recipient of the Louis Brownlow Book Award of the National Academy of Public Administration. In 2008, he won the American Political Science’s John Gaus Award for a lifetime of exemplary scholarship in political science and public administration. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Yale University and has held appointments at University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, the University of Virginia, Vanderbilt University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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