Obama reform plan bears traces of Clinton and Bush efforts

White House photo
While much of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's management reform agenda echoes the Clinton-Gore theme of reinventing government, a Bush administration-like focus on performance is likely to remain a high priority, observers said on Tuesday.

The Democratic presidential nominee's renewal in Green Bay, Wis., of a pledge to make federal programs "work better and cost less" jogged the memories of some Washington management insiders.

"That phrase -- 'make government work better and cost less' -- that was the National Performance Review slogan, which I coined," said David Osborne, former senior adviser to Clinton Vice President Al Gore on the reinventing government task force. "The fact that they're using that is a message that they're harkening back to the Clinton stuff." Osborne serves on Obama's government reform advisory committee.

John Kamensky, former deputy director of Gore's National Performance Review, said Obama's proposal to cut middle managers and reallocate staff to the front lines rang "reinventing government bells … It's clearly an NPR issue."

Kamensky and Osborne both said, however, that Obama's plan seems to draw on elements of the Bush administration's management agenda as well, particularly in terms of performance measurement.

Obama pledged to drastically reorganize President Bush's Program Assessment Rating Tool, which used a 25-part questionnaire to evaluate the performance of more than 1,000 federal programs.

"He's saying he will fundamentally reconfigure PART, but what he's also saying is 'I will keep PART'," Kamensky noted. "The notion that the next administration will continue a version of PART is a significant commitment."

Kamensky echoed one of the themes outlined by the Obama campaign Monday, insisting that performance measures should be better integrated with the budget process -- something not accomplished with the NPR or PART.

"When you do it as part of the budget process you get a whole lot more done," Kamensky said. "Something we call budgeting for outcomes."

Osborne credited the Bush administration for advancing performance measurement, calling PART "a good step forward." He said he would urge the next administration to use performance as a key criterion in the budget process, and to shift from performance measurement to performance management.

Robert Shea, the Office of Management and Budget's former associate director of administration and government performance, took issue with the Obama campaign's characterization of PART as "insular" and "ideological," but was otherwise glad to see Obama's intent to remain focused on performance.

"PART is the most comprehensive, transparent assessment of program performance that we have ever had," said Shea, who is now with consulting firm Grant Thornton's global public sector group. "Could we get more input? Could it be more open? Could it elevate the focus on results to an even greater degree? Yeah. In that respect, what Sen. Obama has done is raising the ante. He is going to take it even further."

Opinions varied on the merits of Obama's pledge to create a performance "SWAT team," headed by a new chief performance officer, which would operate from the White House and work with agency leaders and OMB.

Osborne said creating such a position may allow Obama to avoid one of reinventing government's major roadblocks -- a lack of commitment from political appointees.

"We made the mistake in 1993 of assuming that since the vice president was in charge, all of Clinton's political employees would, of course, buy into reinventing government and manage differently," Osborne said. "It was a huge mistake. They didn't."

For performance initiatives to succeed, Osborne said, the chief executive must be visibly interested in the process. He added that while he wouldn't expect the president to spend a great deal of time on in-the-weeds management issues, "the person who does needs to be close to the president and have his ear and the president needs to, at certain moments, make it clear that he's very supportive."

Kamensky said the new position could take some of the strain off OMB, which has been taking on the tremendous task of determining which programs work in addition to its primary responsibilities of overseeing daily management and preparing the budget.

But some management specialists, particularly those close to OMB, said the agency should not be left out of the performance review process. Shea noted that career professionals with the experience to oversee agencies and their programs make up 95 percent of OMB's staff.

"It's critical that OMB be integral in whatever efforts the president implements," Shea said. "OMB is stretched thin and additional resources could be used to supplement its work, but an administration would be foolish not to take advantage of these resources." OMB declined to comment on Obama's plan.

Adam Hughes, director of federal fiscal policy at the nonprofit OMB Watch, said creating this "high-performance team" within the White House would give program assessments an ideological bent.

"If it is out of the White House it will face a lot of the problems that PART did because it was at OMB; it will be viewed as political," Hughes said. "That may elevate the focus on performance generally but I am not sure it will help getting broad acceptance of the potential administration's proposals."

Paul Light, a professor at New York University's Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service, said in general he is skeptical of creating new offices and positions to deal with long-standing problems.

"We've had czars for lots of different things, and we always find they don't act very czar-like," he said. "We rarely remember what actually happened to the czar at the end of all things."

All the observers expressed enthusiasm that a candidate was talking about addressing government reform at this point in the campaign.

"I'm very pleased that they care enough about management to even issue a policy paper," Light said. "I applaud them for trying to give substance to the general promise of a government that works."

Osborne said he was "very surprised and very pleased" to see the paper come out while Kamensky said he wouldn't have expected a paper of this kind until after the election.

"I am delighted that one of the candidates has issued such a detailed paper on management," Shea said. "That's a good thing."

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