Great Expectations

Sen. Barack Obama has outlined a plan for change, but reforming the bureaucracy requires more than words.

Since he began his quest for the presidency, Barack Obama has assumed the mantle of change. It's a popular political tack; his White House rival John McCain also has adopted it. Beltway outsiders like candidates who claim they're going to clean up and shake up Washington. It is, in other words, a government reform platform, although those words rarely are used. The phrase doesn't exactly light the public's imagination on fire, even if most people share the sentiment.

Recently Obama, known for his soaring oratory, has begun to provide some details on how he would manage the government and its 2.7 million employees if he is elected president. He's proposed a sweeping ethics reform package designed to reduce the influence of lobbyists in the executive branch and vowed to cut spending on federal contracts, pledging to save billions annually. In addition, the Illinois senator has promised an open administration that actively solicits the public's feedback.

During a national service summit on the seventh anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Obama talked at length about the federal government's role and his idea of public service. But one statement in particular revealed the most about his approach toward federal management: "Part of my job, I think, as president, is to make government cool again."

Giving Uncle Sam an image makeover could prove a monumental task. Reforming the bureaucracy will re-quire more than words, and right now Obama has just started to articulate a vision for the world's largest and most expensive bureaucracy, management observers say.

"He's not going to get too many votes by talking about management reform," says David Osborne, senior partner of the Public Strategies Group, a consulting firm, and one of the architects of the Clinton-Gore National Performance Review in the 1990s. "It won't help on the campaign, although it would help if he had people thinking about this." Osborne, who has recommended the launch of a second version of the NPR, serves on Obama's government reform advisory committee.

Transparent Vision

From all indications, Obama's management policies would be a departure from the Bush administration's President's Management Agenda, with its concentration on stoplight-style score cards and public-private job competitions. And while few expect a full-throttle return to the Clinton administration's reinventing government framework for streamlining operations and improving efficiency, Obama seems headed in that direction.

In his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in August, Obama described how he would pay for some of his most expensive initiatives, such as universal health care and energy independence. "I will also go through the federal budget line by line, eliminating programs that no longer work and making the ones we do need work better and cost less, because we cannot meet 21st century challenges with a 20th century bureaucracy," he said.

That blueprint may sound familiar to veterans of the National Performance Review, whose slogan was "A government that works better and costs less." In fact, in an 11-page policy paper on government reform released by the Obama campaign in late September, the candidate endorses many NPR principles. He said he would appoint a White House "SWAT team" - composed of government professionals and a new chief performance officer-to review every federal program for waste and inefficiency.

Obama also promised to "fundamentally reconfigure" the Bush administration's Program Assessment Rating Tool, arguing that it is "insular, arbitrary and is used to promote ideological goals rather than true performance standards." Instead, he argued, he would create new performance goals "based on congressional intent and feedback from the people served by government programs."

And in a Sept. 22 speech in Green Bay, Wis., the Democrat took direct aim at the bureaucracy, vowing to "fire government managers who aren't getting results." He added that his administration would cut funding for wasteful federal programs and "use technology and lessons from the private sector to improve efficiency across every level of government."

Aides say that while Obama will build on the successes of the past two administrations' management reform efforts, he likely will chart his own path centered primarily on outcomes and accountability.

"Sen. Obama will have an agenda that is really focused on results in the agencies and ensuring that the government is working effectively with real accountability for the public," says the campaign's domestic policy director, Neera Tanden. "He has been very focused on ensuring that dollars are well spent. . . . And he will be looking at this in a systematic approach of ensuring that we have real information about how programs are working; that they are accessible to the public and that decision-makers are making decisions not only on numbers but based on impact in solving problems."

Observers agree that the most important tenet of Obama's government reform agenda is his push for transparency and pledge to provide the public with an unobstructed view into his administration's operations. "I actually see it as a more comprehensive agenda compared to the others, which I saw as a bit of a stopgap," says Maurice McTigue, director of the Government Accountability Project at George Mason University's Mercatus Center. "If you focus on transparency and openness and accountability, that means you are willing to focus on what produces results and what doesn't produce results."

Obama's ethics reform agenda is arguably his most detailed domestic policy proposal. Among his pledges: providing the public five days to review legislation before he signs it; requiring that communications between his staff and outside interests regarding regulatory policymaking be disclosed to the public; asking his Cabinet to hold periodic national broadband town hall meetings; and prohibiting appointees from working on regulations or contracts related to a previous employer for at least two years. Politicos who leave the administration would not be able to lobby the White House for the remainder of the Obama administration, and gifts from registered lobbyists would be forbidden.

"When I am president, I will make it absolutely clear that working in an Obama administration is not about serving your former employer, your future employer or your bank account-it's about serving your country, and that's what comes first," Obama said in a June 2007 speech in Manchester, N.H.

His legislative history could portend his administration's priorities. In 2006, Obama, along with Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and McCain-who has promoted his own transparency agenda-helped pass the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, which mandated the creation of a Web-based database of all federal contracts, grants and loans. Since then, Obama has introduced legislation that would require agencies to include searchable copies of all contracts awarded, details about the bidding process, assessments of work already performed, and information on civil, criminal or administrative proceedings against award recipients. The bill has received pushback from industry trade groups that fear the exposure of pro-prietary data.

While McCain has pledged to not sign any legislation containing earmarks, Obama-who has committed to reducing earmarks to their 1994 levels of less than $7.8 billion-has attacked pork barrel spending in a different manner. He has called for the creation of a national infrastructure reinvestment bank to expand and enhance federal transportation spending by supplementing the earmarking process.

"He would add new money in a way that is more effective and more efficient in terms of funding infrastructure," says Jason Furman, Obama's senior economic policy adviser. "He wants that money to go as far as it possibly can." The majority of congressional earmarks fund state and local infrastructure projects.

Obama also would require all new federal hires to sign a form affirming that they were not offered the job based on political affiliation or financial contributions. Any nonpolitical employee alleging a violation of the 1939 Hatch Act-a law that regulates the political activities of federal employees-would be allowed to submit a written complaint to the agency's inspector general, as is the current practice. The IG then would be required to issue a report detailing whether the complaint had merit, and a finding of improper political activities could result in dismissal.

The proposal came in the wake of revelations of contentious personnel practices under the Bush administration at the Justice Department. The department has been plagued by personnel scandals, from the firing of nine U.S. attorneys to reports that applicants for career positions were denied jobs because of political and ideological affiliations.

Attorney Cass Sunstein, who was Obama's colleague for several years at the University of Chicago law school, and now occasionally serves as an informal adviser to the campaign, says Obama has the ability to turn around the Justice Department's reputation because of his managerial skills and his ability to listen to a wide range of opinions. Sunstein recommended that Obama "hire superb people in the most prominent positions, restore a sense of professionalism, restore a commitment to following the law and restore the rule of law as a central ideal."

Contract Negotiations

The past two administrations have faced the dilemma of providing more federal services efficiently without expanding government. They tackled these issues differently-Bush through a greater dependence on the private sector and Clinton through streamlining the size of the federal workforce-but the results were the same: more contractors.

Private companies have played a role in the success, and failure, of practically every major government operation in recent years, from information technology, security and counterintelligence to the Iraq war and rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina. The federal government spent a record $436 billion on contracts in 2007, but the number of federal acquisition professionals needed to handle these contracts has declined. Management observers say Obama should outline a plan for restoring balance and more contracting oversight.

"The first thing they are going to have to figure out is this contracting mess," says Elaine Kamarck, a professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and the former manager of the National Performance Review. "What contracts are out there? Which ones have been let completely illegitimately? Where are the violations?"

Some believe that Obama might break with Democratic party orthodoxy concerning the role of contractors. Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, a contracting trade association, says while Obama has serious concerns about the credibility of the acquisition process, he might not be willing to throw the baby out with the bath water. "We are not seeing that they are coming in with this fundamental abhorrence, distrust and dislike of contractors," Soloway says. "That's not to say that when a policy paper comes out we won't have some heartburn. But my initial impression is we are not looking at a radical agenda here in terms of contracting."

Obama has pledged to reduce spending on contracts by at least 10 percent, saving $40 billion per year. He also would increase the size and training of the government's acquisition workforce, require more audits of large contracts and reduce the use of cost-plus contracts.

Tanden says Obama supports scaling back some privatization initiatives, although he has yet to make a determination on whether to continue the Bush administration's competitive sourcing agenda. "He wants to do what is most effective," she says. "There has been an ideological push for outsourcing and contracting out, and he would restore balance to that and end the abuse in contracting."

Human Capital Crisis

On the civilian side, Obama has offered few details about how he would tackle a number of issues important to federal employees. He rarely discusses streamlining the government hiring system or the looming retirement of thousands of federal workers during the next decade.

"During the next presidency the impending wave of retirements in the federal workforce will hit with tidal wave force," says William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former domestic policy adviser in the Clinton administration. "One big issue is: How are we going to get high-quality young replacements for the young idealists who were drawn to Washington 30 to 40 years ago, given the fact that survey after survey has noted that people have identified the federal workforce with job qualities that they affirmatively don't like?"

Obama has been endorsed by the major federal employee unions, although he has yet to back some of their highest legislative priorities. Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Em-ployees Union, said that after eight years of feuding with the Bush administration, Obama represents a chance to move forward.

"I think he cares about what federal employees think will make the workplace better," Kelley says. "It would be a great step to have an Obama administration, but there is no light switch that you can just turn on and everything is OK. There is recognition that it will take some time."

Some caution, however, that ushering in too much change too quickly could backfire. "I hope one lesson that Sen. Obama will learn is building upon work that has already been done," says Max Stier, president and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. "The civil service has change fatigue. They are used to administrations coming in and reinventing the wheel every four or eight years, and as a result, they lose all energy in pursuing those initiatives."

One way to rebuild the size and morale of the federal workforce could be through a greater focus on community and civil service. Obama plans to more than triple the slots in the AmeriCorps program and to double the Peace Corps. In addition, he has pledged to establish a $4,000 American Opportunity tax credit in exchange for 100 hours of public service per year.

Some hope a renewed spotlight on public service will translate into more interest in federal careers. "Ultimately, I think for the same reason that people are willing to serve their community, there is an opportunity to harness that energy to serve in the public service," Stier says. "Sen. Obama is primed to unleash that interest and energy."

Technology Age

Undoubtedly, Obama would be the country's most tech-adept president ever. The candidate often is seen relaxing with his iPod or scrolling through his BlackBerry. His Facebook page includes more than 1.6 million supporters, dwarfing the size of McCain's online backers, or any other elected official for that matter.

Obama's focus on technology permeates through virtually all his government reform proposals, from creating millions of green jobs to providing financial assistance to small business owners. Most significant, Obama says he will name a federal chief technology officer and a national cyber adviser, creating the government's two highest level technology positions.

The CTO would be tasked with ensuring that agencies have the right IT infrastructure and policies, as well as overseeing the development of a national, interoperable wireless network for local, state and federal first responders. Meanwhile, the cyber adviser would focus on cybersecurity and tightening standards to secure information, both on the federal level and in the private sector.

"What is most important to the government as regards technology is . . . to set the stage for economic growth," Obama economic policy adviser Austan Goolsbee said in a July conference call. "To motivate and drive a lot of reforms in the government itself and for the president to set a tone, and for the government to set a tone, that is pro-technology and pro-innovation."

The Obama campaign's use of cutting-edge technology-particularly in fund-raising and community organizing operations-has impressed even skeptics of some of his policies. "Their use of technology in the campaign is stunning," says Olga Grkavac, executive vice president of the Information Technology Association of America, an IT trade group. "And, that's exciting. But I think there is a difference between using that technology in your campaign and then translating it to the government." In July, ITAA issued a report grading Obama and McCain on seven key technology issues. The trade group gave both candidates an "incomplete" for failing to articulate an overarching vision for their technology proposals.

Tough Transition

The success or failure of Obama's management agenda could depend on the talent and capability of his 4,000 political appointees, more than a quarter of whom will require Senate approval. In July, the campaign said it had formed a transition team to prepare for the task of post-election governing, including the vetting of potential appointments.

Observers agree that with only 77 days from election to inauguration-in the midst of a war, eroding public confidence in government and a flagging economy-Obama, if elected, will be thrust into extraordinary circumstances demanding immediate attention and results.

"He will inherit such a mess on so many levels," Kamarck says. "He really needs to look for people with experience and with a track record of moving the bureaucracy and understanding how the bureaucracy works, because he won't have time for on-the-job training."

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