Bush official warns against politicizing management agenda

The Bush administration runs the risk of discrediting the President's Management Agenda by touting its accomplishments in the upcoming presidential campaign, a key administration official said Monday. "Management is apolitical," said Clay Johnson, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, at a luncheon in Washington hosted by the IBM Center for the Business of Government. If Bush emphasizes his management agenda during the campaign, civil servants may start to question the administration's motives for pursuing the effort, Johnson said. Doubts may "creep into [their] minds" as to whether the agenda is designed with their interests at heart.

The agenda asks agencies to improve performance in five areas: human resources management, competitive sourcing, financial management, electronic government and linking program performance to budgets. Using a traffic-light style scorecard, OMB rates agencies quarterly on their progress in meeting the agenda's objectives. In the spring, the administration worked with agency officials to set management goals for July 2004.

The agenda is now at a turning point, with agencies taking more ownership of the initiatives and many poised to move up a notch on the scorecard within the next nine months, Johnson said. The typical agency will have yellow ratings by next July, he predicted, as opposed to the red rating most received when OMB first started evaluating agencies in February 2002.

Accomplishments achieved under the initiative are impressive enough that Bush's campaign staff will be tempted to share them with the public, Johnson said. But if the initiative does come up during the campaign, Johnson said he hopes it will be introduced in a context that emphasizes that the initiatives are crucial to improving government efficiency and will therefore benefit civil servants and the public alike.

The management agenda should not play into Bush's reelection campaign at all, but probably will, said Paul Light, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. The urge to focus on management will be especially strong if Democrats attack Bush for large budget deficits and high spending on the war in Iraq, he said.

But if the campaign emphasizes savings achieved through the management agenda, Bush risks alienating federal workers by politicizing the initiative. "What good management is about is good management," Light said.

The competitive sourcing component of the management agenda, under which federal employees must compete for their jobs against contractors, has proven particularly contentious with civil servants, said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. "We've seen [the management agenda] as a political agenda all along," Kelley said. She noted that Bush introduced the concept of competitive sourcing during his presidential campaign.

Voters do not pay much heed to the details of federal management, Light said, though they do form a general impression about whether the government is operating efficiently.

"It won't make that much of a difference [to voters], but that won't stop the president from mentioning it if backed into a corner in a debate," Light said. "If [Bush] backs into an argument about the management agenda saving money, it's going to make Clay Johnson's job a lot harder."

But Jonathan Breul, a fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government and a former senior adviser at OMB, said the management agenda is relevant to Bush's reelection campaign. "The management agenda doesn't matter if the [Bush campaign] does not connect it to [improved efficiency]" and share results with the public, Breul said.

While citizens may not grasp the details of the management agenda, they do expect that the "resources trusted to the federal government are managed well and wisely used," Breul said. It will be important for the administration to "come back and show progress in that respect," he said.

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