President Obama works side by side with agency leaders to get results.
Many presidents have talked about the need to improve executive branch performance, but President Obama is the first to assume personal responsibility for doing so. Without that impetus from the chief executive officer of the executive branch, there is unlikely to be the kind of change many have talked about but none so far has effected.
True leaders model the behavior they seek. While prior presidents-Democratic and Republican-have proposed various public policies after railing against the supposedly ineffective and inefficient executive branch, none has been willing to devote his time or that of agency heads to executing those policies. The gap between policy creation and implementation is deep and wide, and so far no president has been willing to leap the abyss, much less risk falling into it.
But Obama has announced a change in this pattern. He has pledged to use his most valuable resource-his time-to improve agency productivity. In the Analytical Perspectives section of his fiscal 2010 budget proposal, the president said he would conduct "meetings with Cabinet officers to review their progress toward meeting performance improvement targets." Obama also made it clear he expects his Cabinet officers to spend their time on increasing productivity.
Office of Management and Budget Director Peter R. Orszag put teeth in Obama's plan when he directed agencies to define outcome-oriented goals, the internal and external programs that contribute to accomplishing them, the people responsible, and the strategy for reaching the targets by the end of July.
When performance matters to the president and his top political appointees, it also will be important to members of the Senior Executive Service, mid-level managers, first-level supervisors and employees. When performance matters to the president, appointees can no longer avoid personal engagement and blame others for nonperformance. Instead, they must devote themselves to engagement and discussion with their workforces about how to achieve their goals. It also is easier to delegate authority for achieving goals when they are specific and based on outcomes. Political appointees can be satisfied that their policy goals are identified, and they can measure the results, rather than attempting to micromanage.
Obama said in the budget document that he wants to see "collaborating across levels of government" during the process of setting agency goals and creating plans to achieve results. He recognizes that, given the complexity of the problems and the need for innovation, it is impossible to achieve goals without collaboration.
The president is modeling the behavior he seeks. He has created 20 czars, each of whom has the responsibility to collaborate across agency lines. He also created a chief performance officer position, filled by Jeffrey Zients, whose job includes developing "a performance agenda across government."
Recognizing the collaborative role employees must play through their unions to improve performance, Obama has indicated he understands that an engaged workforce is a higher-performing workforce.
This attitude contrasts with the Clinton administration's recognition of-but failure to enforce-the need to collaborate with employees through their unions on performance, and the Bush administration's attempt to enforce agency goals while rejecting collaboration to achieve the targets.
The potential impact of Obama's personal leadership on these goals is significant. We might at last begin to focus on performance and improve it, and use federal employees' intellectual power and desire to serve the public. Let's hope this change is in our future, because the nation has never needed high performance from public employees more than it does today.?
Robert M. Tobias is a distinguished practitioner in residence and director of the Institute for the Study of Policy Implementation at American University and former president of the National Treasury Employees Union.