The Reluctant Executive

Sean Gallup/Corbis

Measuring government’s performance has to be a key to budget savings, doesn’t it? Figure out what works and cut what doesn’t—for 20 years, that’s been the recurring theme of federal performance strategies. But the evidence is pretty clear: Performance management just isn’t a way to produce big budget savings, and it’s not ever likely to be.

That’s not to say performance management doesn’t have huge potential. But looking for big savings from the effort is like using a hammer to drive a screw. Lots of banging would just damage the screw—and what it’s being driven into. Performance management works best in doing things better. Real savings come from doing different things—or deciding not to do them at all. 

But that creates a nasty political dilemma. Political attention, on Capitol Hill and in the White House, quickly fades when performance management doesn’t produce significant savings. That, in turn, drains high-level attention and leadership from making programs work, and that leads to problems, big and small. Citizens wonder why government doesn’t work, trust erodes more, and presidents find themselves having to explain failures. 

This cycle has led presidents deep into the Katrina Syndrome—stumbling into big management problems and then failing to solve them. For George W. Bush, the point at which his negatives exceeded his positives and never recovered was in the sad days after the hurricane nearly drowned New Orleans and devastated much of the Gulf Coast. Barack Obama might well be tumbling into the syndrome as well, with his poll numbers sagging since the catastrophic launch of HealthCare.gov, despite the success in enrolling millions of Americans since. The syndrome isn’t inevitable—neither Ronald Reagan nor Bill Clinton found their presidencies slipping away in the fall of their fifth year. But failing to “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States,” as the president swears in the oath of office, can be politically fatal. Presidents often don’t care about management until it’s too late.

The lack of attention to management was “the Obama White House’s original sin,” Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in October 2013 in The Atlantic.com. The problems with the launch of Obamacare, he argued, were but an example of “the larger failure of public administration that has been endemic in the Obama White House, and is probably the president’s most significant weakness.” With big issues in Obamacare and at agencies ranging from the Internal Revenue Service to the National Security Agency, the administration is at risk of sinking deep into the quicksand of the Katrina Syndrome. It needs an escape plan if it is to avoid sliding into a morass in its
remaining years.

World-Class Performance Plan

The irony here is that Obama’s management failures have blossomed despite a federal performance strategy that is, by any measure, world class. 

The administration’s new budget lays out an ambitious three-part initiative, reinforced by the 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act. Agencies have developed strategic plans before, but for the first time they’re writing plans in sync with each other and with the president’s overall strategy. Even more important, these plans are now on a four-year cycle, so they’ll stretch to the end of Obama’s term—and the next president will have a chance for a reset. Obama’s Office of Management and Budget is making sure the new plans have measurable targets by which managers can be held accountable.

Moreover, in a process started by former OMB associate director Shelley Metzenbaum, each agency is identifying its own priority goals, which top leaders promise to pursue. The Interior Department, for example, is seeking to improve the availability of water to tribal communities, protect landscapes and sustainably manage timber. The State Department is focusing on improving America’s economic reach, strengthening civil society and modernizing diplomacy through stronger collaboration with its partners. 

Layered on top of these individual goals is a set of cross-agency priority goals. For the first time, driven by GPRA, the federal government is defining objectives that cut across agencies. Some goals involve most agencies, such as providing better customer service, improving information technology and building the workforce of tomorrow. Other goals require multiple agencies to work together on efforts such as improving veterans’ mental health services, strengthening cybersecurity and better managing security clearances.

The Clinton administration’s National
Performance Review focused mostly on individual agency operations, and the Bush administration’s Performance Assessment Rating Tool dug deep into individual programs. Obama is seizing on GPRA to drive performance initiatives across government. 

Other nations, like Australia and New Zealand, continue to roll out improvements to their performance management systems, but there probably is no country with a broader plan than the United States. Backing up the administration’s management agenda is an unprecedented database at Performance.gov. 

It’s much more than just show. The much-maligned Bureau of Indian Affairs, for example, blew past its priority goal of reducing crime by 5 percent to drive violent crime down 35 percent on some reservations. The Treasury Department reports it saved hundreds of millions of dollars by using electronic transactions to increase efficiency and reduce fraud. 

But such savings are hard to document, at least in a way the Congressional Budget Office can “score” as bankable. And even hundreds of millions of dollars in savings won’t make much of a dent in a $4 trillion budget. So management improvement efforts tend to take a back seat. 

The Root of the Problem

Why has the Obama administration struggled so much with performance management? A big part of the answer is the gulf between the West Wing and the OMB management team.

Of course, the gap between political and governing realities is nothing new. Clinton’s NPR staff often struggled to make the connection, even though Vice President Gore headed the NPR. When Gore ran for president in 2000, his advisers steered him away from mentioning the NPR, even though it was his largest and most recognizable accomplishment. During the Bush years, the “MBA president” paid relatively little attention to his management team.

But in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, the management teams found at least a handful of agenda items the president cared about. Gore went on David Letterman’s late-night show to break an ashtray, dramatizing his effort to cut waste by eliminating federal requirements to buy “designer” products. Bush’s management team found programs the president was interested in at NASA and the Veterans Affairs Department, and showed him how both moved from red to yellow in the administration’s stoplight-style performance management system. 

But in the Obama White House, the Oval Office hasn’t connected with the performance team. Writing in TIME magazine earlier this year, Steven Brill said President Obama regularly ended meetings about the launch of HealthCare.gov
by saying,” I want to remind the team that this only works if the technology works.” But, Brill concluded, “The problem … was that no one in the meetings had any idea whether the technology worked, nor did the president and his chief of staff have the inclination to dig in and find out.” It’s always been hard to drive the politics of a performance
management agenda. It’s impossible without having the president engaged.

The West Wing-OMB gap has spilled over into the link between OMB and the agencies. Since the Clinton administration, the prime connector has been the President’s Management Council, with OMB’s deputy director for management as its chair and the Cabinet departments’ deputy secretaries as members. When it’s worked well, the PMC has been the driver for pushing the president’s management strategy out into the agencies and for finding solutions to big crosscutting challenges. But that requires a strong hand from OMB, and leadership has been spotty during the Obama years. OMB has been under enormous pressure, especially when Deputy Director for Management Jeff Zients was pulled into extended service as acting OMB director. The new deputy director for management, Beth Cobert, is pushing the PMC to meet on a regular schedule, but it’s proving tough to connect the White House with embattled and isolated senior federal leaders. 

Five Ways Out

Here’s the Catch-22 of performance management: It doesn’t produce big savings, so it doesn’t attract much political attention. But when presidents ignore management, they often get politically gobbled up by management failures. There might not be much upside in managing programs well, but there’s often harsh, even fatal political retribution for operating them poorly, especially when the Katrina Syndrome unexpectedly appears. 

Team Obama has been trying to forge a stronger connection between performance, analysis and the budget. The administration is pushing a strong effort to use evidence to make better policy decisions. There’s a handful of pilot and demonstration programs, including figuring out what best reduces youth violence and how to help disabled individuals remain in the workforce. However, the evidence movement is embryonic—
different parts of OMB are responsible for the performance and evidence initiatives, and they aren’t linked up. 

In 1970, President Nixon came up with a plan to transform the old Bureau of the Budget into a new agency that connected management and budget. But that has never really happened. What an irony: The United States has perhaps the world’s most powerful design for a governmental performance system, but the trust of Americans that government can actually work has never been lower.

In winning passage of the Affordable Care Act, Obama gained a victory that eluded presidents before him. But his legacy will be defined not by getting the law passed but by how well he makes it work. Failing to pay attention to public administration could cripple not only his health reform legacy. Similar problems could spill over into large swaths of the executive branch. 

With a year and a half left on the clock, here are five things the administration can do to prevent that from happening.

Make an act of contrition. The only way to make amends for failing to focus on management is to pay as much attention to it from here on out as to political battles with Republicans. In fact, management is a game that the president can control.  He has only a bit of leverage in the battle with the right, and it’s a battle he’s sure to lose if he provides opponents with free ammunition through management failures. The best way for Obama to secure his legacy is to ensure his favored programs actually perform well.

Understand the game. By the time a president stumbles into the Katrina Syndrome, there’s often no escape. Obama’s best hope at this point lies in paying enough attention to management that the rest of the Affordable Care Act implementation goes well, and forestalls future management crises. It might be too late to reverse public opinion—but those are the only cards he has to play. Creating a program that people come to appreciate is his best hope—and politically it paints his opponents into a corner. If he fails, things only get worse.

Reinforce the game plan. The administration’s performance game plan is a good one. But it needs top-level West Wing attention, or it will quickly degenerate into a paper-pushing exercise for both the agencies and OMB. It can’t bring billions of dollars of budget savings, but it can focus the administration on producing genuine value for money. If the administration fails to do so, its performance initiative could get overgrown by paperwork kudzu, and Obama could be known as the president who lost the performance war. 

Put someone in charge and back them up. That starts with Obamacare. Obama seems determined to make his nominee to head the Health and Human Services Department, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the point person on the ACA. But she has to carry that flag at the same time she ensures that her $1 trillion agency works. Shifting her away from her position as OMB director creates the need for a strong management-oriented OMB chief, who can use the agency’s vast leverage over the budget to improve performance. Cobert, OMB’s deputy director for management, needs muscle from the new director and from the West Wing to drive the big ideas into the operations of the executive branch. 

Plan now for the transition. One of the Bush administration’s classiest moves was carefully planning for the transition to the next administration when it came to management reforms. Then-OMB Deputy Director for Management Clay Johnson knew the incoming team was sure to dismantle the stoplight system at the center of the Bush agenda, but he also knew the combination of agency-based performance plans and crosscutting issues was the future of government management. Likewise, the next administration, Democrat or Republican, is sure to discard Obama’s performance labels, but his management agenda has strong bones. The Obama administration can help cement the big steps already made: getting agency managers to decide which performance balls they most want to move down the field, producing good measures to keep score, making progress on crosscutting issues like cybersecurity and human capital, and ensuring that the PMC is institutionalized as the strong engine that the government’s performance system needs. If the Obama team fails to do so, its legacy could be an even steeper slide to lower public trust in government.

Mega-budget battles will define Washington politics for a very long time. Performance management can’t slash the deficit, but it can help prevent further erosion of the government’s capacity to get things done and forestall the Katrina Syndrome in the future. That’s the best chance any president’s got. And given the importance of these issues, that’s not such a bad hand to play.

Donald F. Kettl is dean of the School of
Public Policy at the University of Maryland. 

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