Analysis: Czars and the Bureaucracy

President Obama’s appointment of designated problem-solvers could be paving the way for 21st century government.

On the campaign trail Barack Obama vowed to change the way Washington does business. As president, his management reform agenda still is evolving, but there are signs he is beginning to fundamentally transform the way government approaches big problems. As Obama appoints a series of strategic czars, the outline of a 21st century government is emerging.

The czar phenomenon is reflected in the rising number of White House special assistants for "x, y and z," as well as special envoys, special representatives and special advisers at the State Department. While there has long been a statutory czar at the Office of National Drug Control Policy, for example, recent appointments have followed suit. To name a few, Steve Rattner was named lead adviser on auto industry issues -- better known as the car czar. Nancy-Ann DeParle was appointed counselor to the president and director of the White House Office of Health Reform -- aka health czar. And on Friday, the president announced a new White House cyber czar would be named to work on the threat to national security from hackers or terrorists.

While the term "czar" is getting ubiquitous, these positions are a far cry from the czarist Russia image. Today's government czars lack such dictatorial authority. It is more correct to call them collaborators, since their role is to bring together people from different agencies, sectors and nations. These jobs are nonhierarchical and have no direct control over anyone. Modern-day czars must instead use persuasive, partnership skills.

We are seeing a subtle shift to a two-track government that melds this role of designated problem-solver and the traditional bureaucracy.

Bureaucracies actually are very good for certain functions. They are good at routines, such as sending out monthly Social Security checks. They are good, most of the time, in responding to emergencies for which they have been trained and are prepared. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's effective and rapid response in tracking and analyzing the recent flu epidemic is one example. Bureaucracies are not very good at (and often resistant to) working across boundaries with organizations they do not control and with whom they often compete for resources.

Government czars are designated problem-solvers who are consciously placed outside the traditional bureaucracy, giving them several advantages in getting their job done.

For starters, they aren't bogged down with managing a large organization. Running a department is full-time job in itself and often requires a different set of leadership skills than problem-solving and bringing together disparate groups. Government has seen the emergence of a critical managerial class, which specializes in running organizations. But it's an all-consuming task for executives, leaving little time to focus on a specific challenge.

Designated problem-solvers can focus exclusively on one set of issues until they are resolved. George Mitchell, appointed special envoy for Middle East peace, and Richard Holbrooke, as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, are prime examples. Middle East peace, it seems, should be the jurisdiction of the assistant secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs or the secretary of State. But those leaders have myriad other responsibilities on their plate.

Government czars have the ability to reach across boundaries to work with the public and nonprofit sectors, state and local governments, and even other nations. This is a far cry from the traditional agency-centric bureaucracy.

But both the bureaucracy and designated problem-solvers have important roles in 21st century government. Without great fanfare, it seems the president Obama is creating the government of the future.

Mark A. Abramson is president of Leadership Inc. He has served as executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government and as president of the Council for Excellence in Government.

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