Management’s Next Challenge

Broad bromides should give way to a focus on key priorities.

Should Barack Obama unveil a formal governmentwide management agenda, as have other recent presidents, and if so, what should it comprise?

That topic was addressed by about 30 federal management experts, who spent an afternoon in mid-October discussing what might come next by way of a presidential management initiative.

John Kamensky, who staffed the Clinton-Gore National Performance Review, described NPR's principles. Robert Shea, who was central to the Bush administration's management program, spoke about efforts to make agencies improve performance through use of the Performance Assessment Rating Tool. Jonathan Breul, for many years the voice of management wisdom at the Office of Management and Budget, also was among the participants. The session was hosted by William D. Eggers, director of the Deloitte public sector research program, and Stephen Goldsmith, director of the innovations in American government program at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

So the discussion benefited from a lot of hard-earned wisdom about the strengths and weaknesses of the broad, cross-cutting management dictates imposed on agencies during the past 16 years-and participants were well-equipped to ask whether another regime should be imposed.

I argued in opposition, and the majority of participants seemed to agree. Laws and mandates have piled up for so many years that agencies do not need any more. And it's hardly necessary to spend White House time on such well-ingrained and essential goals as better financial management, more e-government and improved personnel practices.

Of course, Obama probably will have a program with a label-how about "Reform 21" or perhaps "NextGov?" But this won't be of central importance, for such broad-based bromides need now to give way to specific efforts built around a few national priorities.

One important Obama goal is to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. This is achievable, given the political will and requisite funding. Some at the Deloitte meeting spoke of creating another NASA, and finding a brilliant manager like James E. Webb, NASA's early leader. Management lessons, and perhaps theories, would emerge as byproducts of such an effort.

The nation also urgently needs to tend to its financial stability, and here again, we are treading in unfamiliar territory. Policy, for now, has been set in the banking bailout law Congress approved in the fall, but staffing the new Office of Financial Stability and creating a huge new debt and regulatory program on the fly offer unprecedented challenges. How does one recruit people who can understand how to sort out the complex financial entanglements that have brought us down? Can we pay them enough? To the extent the Treasury Department outsources the job, who will be qualified to oversee the work? It's a much more complex task than the 1989 savings and loan bailout, which cost a fraction of the new bailout. And it's evident that Treasury is struggling now.

On fiscal policy, we should have an independent commission to frame an escape from the huge hole we were digging even before the bailout, the consequence of Medicare and other entitlement programs whose costs are spiraling far beyond their resources. On health care, we need the best expertise available to reconfigure the nation's delivery system.

Six years ago, in a prescient book titled The Politics of Fortune (Harvard Business School Press, 2002), Jeffrey Garten, dean of the Yale School of Management, called upon private sector leaders to embrace the values of the public sector. The call went largely unheeded, and the nation is suffering.

Perhaps now we can hope that government can enlist good-willed talent from business to help meet management challenges the likes of which we haven't seen in a lifetime.

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