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

Obama on Management Reform: It's a Private Matter

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Some excerpts from President Obama's remarks at the White House today on what the administration is calling its "new management agenda":

We started by recruiting some of the smartest people from the private sector to work side-by-side with some of the smartest people in the public sector to help get it done. ...

Entrepreneurs and business owners are now using that data -- the people’s data --to create jobs and solve problems that government can’t solve by itself or can’t do as efficiently. ...

We’ve also welcomed a new class of Presidential Innovation Fellows -- and I’d love for the press to meet some of these folks, because they’re extraordinary.  These are Americans with vast private sector technology expertise who have volunteered to come serve their country in the [public] sector. ...

Now, the good news is America is full of talented, dedicated public servants who are working really hard every day to uphold the public trust. ...

And I’m going to be asking more people around the country -- more inventors and entrepreneurs and visionaries -- to sign up to serve.  We’ve got to have the brightest minds to help solve our biggest challenges. ... 

We've got the potential to do so much better than we're doing right now, but we're going to need the help of the private sector, the not-for-profits. ...

See a pattern here? Almost all of Obama's statements about who would be leading the latest effort at making government work better focused on the private sector. Only the "brightest minds" from the business world can solve our "biggest challenges," in this administration's calculus.

This is unusual rhetoric coming from a Democratic president, especially one well into his second term. Obama has shown great faith in government to solve problems ranging from expanding access to health care to overseeing the nation's financial system. But when it comes to improving the operations of government itself, the answers apparently must come from the outside. Indeed Obama's description of the effort makes it sound more like Ronald Reagan's Grace Commission than Bill Clinton's reinventing government effort. 

That leads to two questions:

  • Is the administration committed to seeing through a new round of reforms? Most of the specific recommendations Obama discussed today, such as getting reorganization authority from Congress to restructure agencies, already have been proposed and haven't gotten much traction.
  • Can reform be driven from outside government? No one would dispute the innovation and creativity of American entrepreneurs, especially in the technology realm, but there's also a strong case to be made that right now, what government needs is to unleash the creativity of its experienced managers and employees, who are the only ones with the savvy to know what can and can't be done within the system of  laws, rules and regulations that govern all federal activity -- and which aren't going away.

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.

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