Mr. President: Look inside agencies for leaders

“As he seeks to replace Cabinet officers, I would urge him to seek people with managerial experience in [running] large, complex organizations,” Elaine Kamarck said Wednesday. “As he seeks to replace Cabinet officers, I would urge him to seek people with managerial experience in [running] large, complex organizations,” Elaine Kamarck said Wednesday. Flickr user thirdwaythinktank

President Obama should seek candidates with management experience to run the federal government during his second term and solicit more input from career civil servants on how to improve agencies, said a former Clinton administration official and a former Republican senator Wednesday.

Talented agency personnel with management know-how will be essential to helping Obama implement his signature health care reform law as well as streamline the bureaucracy where it’s appropriate, according to Elaine Kamarck, who managed Clinton’s reinventing government initiative in the 1990s, and former Ohio Sen. George Voinovich. Kamarck and Voinovich are well-known in Washington for their interest and efforts in government management and federal workforce issues.

“As he seeks to replace Cabinet officers, I would urge him to seek people with managerial experience in [running] large, complex organizations,” Kamarck said during an event at the Brookings Institution on the challenges Obama faces in his second term.

Voinovich agreed and said many good leaders already are working in the federal government. “Why do we always have to go outside? Why not look within the agencies to see who’s there?” he asked. Voinovich, who helped create the federal chief human capital officer position, cited current Comptroller General Gene Dodaro as an example of a career public servant elevated to lead an agency. Dodaro, who took over for David Walker at the Government Accountability Office in an acting capacity in 2008, was nominated to head GAO in 2010. He has spent more than 30 years rising through the ranks at the agency.

Voinovich said talking to federal personnel and agency customers about improving government operations and services is just common sense. There are basic management principles and practices in successful businesses that “we need to get into some of these agencies,” he said.

Kamarck outlined some ideas for reorganizing federal departments during the president’s second term. For instance, the Commerce Department -- which Obama has proposed restructuring -- should focus primarily on “rebuilding our export capacity,” rather than myriad other tasks that currently fall under its roof, Kamarck said. The Homeland Security Department is a “mish-mosh” of agencies and responsibilities that needs a clearer mission, she said. DHS, which Kamarck praised for doing a good job in spite of its patchwork of roles, should focus primarily on border security. Intelligence, cybersecurity and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for example, shouldn’t be housed in DHS, Kamarck said.

Leaders also shouldn’t be afraid of changing government processes or restructuring agencies if it makes sense, she noted: “We don’t have to protect every darn thing the government ever did. Some things can die. Given the budget constraints, it’s time to say what’s obsolete and what we can do without.”

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