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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Leading Questions


Nearly every presidential administration begins with a review of the current shape of government -- which agencies are doing what work, at what cost and to what end. The Obama administration is no exception, with the new president promising a top-to-bottom review of federal operations.

Each president has entered office with preferences and assumptions about government, beliefs about management and political prerogatives that help determine the course of their management reviews.

In his 1993 inaugural address, President Bill Clinton pledged a government of "bold, persistent experimentation," and subsequently put Vice President Al Gore in charge of the Reinventing Government initiative. That effort focused heavily on the management concept of employee empowerment. Clinton's team mined the ranks of government employees for ideas to improve the federal bureaucracy. This emphasis on the rank-and-file aligned with Clinton's political alliance with labor unions. His focus on empowerment helped pave the way for union acquiescence to his plans to downsize government -- a move also aided by Clinton's emphasis on the elimination of management and headquarters positions rather than front-line service workers' jobs.

Eight years later, President George W. Bush in his inaugural address emphasized the limits of government, telling Americans that "what you do is as important as anything government does." His President's Management Agenda reflected Bush's MBA background. It was run in a top-down style from the Office of Management and Budget, imposing goals on federal agencies for human resources, technology and performance management --as well as goals for opening government jobs to competition from private contractors. OMB regularly rated agencies' progress on meeting the targets the office set. Bush reversed some of Clinton's power arrangements with unions, in keeping with his administration's political differences with labor unions.

This week, President Barack Obama outlined his initial take on government management. "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works," Obama said during his Jan. 20 inaugural speech. "Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end."

Both Clinton and Bush pursued their management agendas in parallel with the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act, which was Congress' effort to improve management in the agencies. The law requires agencies to set annual and five-year goals and to report on progress toward the achievement of those goals each year. In 1997, Clinton's deputy director for management at OMB, John Koskinen, said the Results Act asked three questions of federal managers:

  • What are we getting for the money we are spending?
  • What are federal programs and organizations trying to achieve?
  • How can the effectiveness of these activities be determined?
The Clinton and Bush administrations approached these questions with different assumptions, and they got different answers. The Obama administration has yet to reveal the assumptions it brings to the task of management review. But every leader has predilections, and those beliefs often are just as important in shaping the answers they get as are the questions that they ask.

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.


Brian Friel is founder of One Nation Analytics, an independent research, analytics and consulting firm for the federal market.

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