Presidential candidates’ management agendas -- or lack thereof -- scrutinized

Both presumptive presidential nominees need to devote more time and attention to how they would manage the federal civilian workforce, two longtime government management observers recently told Government Executive

In the presidential debates "we had questions that ranged from $400 haircuts to flag lapel pins to whether they [candidates] believed in evolution. I don't recall a single question on government operations," said Max Stier, president and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. "That is a dramatic oversight, and one that will be extraordinarily costly if that's indicative of the attention the candidates will pay to the issue."

According to The Next Government, a project of the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania, Sens. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and John McCain, R-Ariz., have focused on ethics issues with respect to the federal workforce. Both candidates support the creation of an independent ethics office to oversee adherence to federal lobbying and ethics rules.

McCain would like to make it easier to fire federal employees who are poor performers, and to outsource more government work to contractors. He also wants to launch an executive search initiative to bring talented business leaders into vacant federal jobs.

Obama has said he would appoint a chief technology officer for government. But according to the Fels Institute, neither candidate has put forth a proposal to address federal pay issues by implementing pay-for-performance, reforming locality pay, or establishing pay parity between civilian employees and members of the armed forces. Neither McCain or Obama has discussed in detail how to sustain strong federal employee health benefits.

Paul Light, the Paulette Goddard Professor of Public Service at New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, said that the lack of discussion about government operations isn't a problem simply because it means the next president will be less prepared to lead government; it's also a missed political opportunity.

"Neither candidate has responded at all to the cascade of problems we've had over the past six months with government performance," Light said. "The candidates don't seem to have an agenda for addressing things like aircraft groundings, or toxic trailers, or leaded toys …You could really go to town on government failure right now."

Stier and Light said that part of the process of preparing political nominees for confirmation hearings should be teaching them how to effectively manage career employees, and testing them on their depth and breadth of knowledge about the laws and rules governing federal management at every level.

"The campaigns ought to be looking to fill the [chief executive officer] positions with management professionals, prioritizing management experience over political connections," Stier said. "These positions are not political prizes, and they fall to the bottom of the pile. That's a mistake."

Light said that one thing people inside and outside government can expect will be that the next president will abandon much of Bush's management approach.

"That is predictable from 50 years of presidential action on management," Light said. "Bush erased [President Clinton's] reinventing government. Clinton erased total quality management. Father Bush erased Reagan's war on waste…. This administration has done the traffic-light scoring system and the president's management agenda. It'll be gone within 15 minutes of the president's swearing in. You won't see any more traffic lights in government after January 20, 2009."

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