Role Model

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.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

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

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


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