Fedblog FedblogFedblog
Government Executive Editor in Chief Tom Shoop, along with other editors and staff correspondents, look at the federal bureaucracy from the outside in.

Is Government Cool Yet?

Carolyn Kaster/AP
At a presidential campaign forum in 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama lamented “the loss of a civic culture in Washington.” The situation, he said, had “led to not only well-known disasters, like the mismanagement of the [Hurricane] Katrina situation, but quiet disasters, where you’ve got entire agencies that have been hollowed out and you’ve got political appointees who aren’t concerned with the mission of those organizations.”

While declaring a need for “house cleaning,” Obama also noted the federal government’s accomplishments in areas such as civil rights, interstate highways and national parks. “So part of my job, I think, as president,” he said, “is to make government cool again.”

How has that worked out for you, Mr. President?

Of course, it’s not entirely Obama’s fault that the image of Washington, its political leadership and the civil servants who manage federal operations on a day-to-day basis has, if anything, deteriorated since his campaign pledge. In the midst of an at-best sluggish economic recovery and burgeoning budget deficits, it seems clear most Americans think the federal government is anything but cool.

Obama’s declaration in June that the private sector was “doing fine,” and that it was the public sector that needed assistance in the form of more government hiring, didn’t play well. Voters apparently aren’t in a mood to be sympathetic to the plight of the civil servant. Indeed, they went to the polls in large numbers in Wisconsin to back Gov. Scott Walker in his effort to stave off a recall campaign that originated when he provoked outrage by scaling back public employee bargaining rights. And in San Diego and San Jose, Calif., they backed initiatives to trim local employees’ retirement packages.

At the federal level, of course, employees have endured a two-year pay freeze and ongoing efforts to scale back their own retirement benefits. They, too, are disinclined to view their employer as cool these days—though they are still, on the whole, highly committed to the missions of the agencies where they work.

Even if Obama hasn’t succeeded in his coolness objective, how has he performed as chief executive? His lack of experience running large organizations was an issue in 2008.

Obama said on the campaign trail that he wasn’t in the race to become “operating officer” of the executive branch. “Some in this debate around experience seem to think the job of president is to go in and run some bureaucracy,” he told a Nevada newspaper. “Well, that’s not my job. My job is to set a vision of ‘here’s where the bureaucracy needs to go.’ ”

In the July issue of Government Executive, Charlie Clark will examine how Obama set that vision and just how much he has learned on the job about leading the executive branch in his first term. Many observers say he has faced a steep learning curve, while others note management accomplishments ranging from improving efficiency of information technology operations to cutting improper federal payments to wading into the perilous waters of reorganizing federal agencies.

Maybe coolness will come in a second term.

Whether Obama gets one, of course, will be up to the voters. In the September issue of  the magazine, we’ll take an in-depth look at the management style and approach to government of Obama’s opponent in the race to lead the executive branch for the next four years—former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Tom Shoop is vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversees both print and online editorial operations. He started as associate editor of Government Executive magazine in 1989; launched the company’s flagship website, GovExec.com, in 1996; and was named editor in chief in 2007.

Close [ x ] More from GovExec

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

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care


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