Memo to the President-Elect

By now you’ve gotten plenty of input on staffing and policy. Here’s some frank advice on making government work.

By now you've gotten plenty of input on staffing and policy. Here's some frank advice on making government work.

In the weeks since your historic election as the 44th president of the United States, you've been buffeted by advice-some solicited and some not-from all corners about how to run your administration. Advocacy groups, labor unions, think tanks and nonprofits have filled your in-box with policy papers and requests for immediate presidential action, from closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay to reversing the Bush administration's stance on stem cell research.

But there's more to running the federal government than implementing a new series of policies. As of noon on Jan. 20, you will not only be leader of the free world, but the boss of 2.7 million employees. And you'll find that they are less impressed by soaring campaign rhetoric than they are with executive branch competence and sound management policies. Remember, these are the people who will implement your vision and determine the success or failure of your presidency. (Don't believe us? Think Katrina response, U.S. attorney hiring practices and conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.) Inspire them and your policies will flourish. Fail them and your plans may well fall flat.

With that in mind, here are a series of recommendations that might not have made their way into any of the briefing books prepared for you by your transition team.


During the campaign, you said that part of your job as president would be "to make government cool again." We categorically endorse any effort to make the federal bureaucracy a place where innovation and creativity are encouraged. But before you start moving in that direction, understand that you have a morale crisis on your hands that must be addressed. Eight years of fighting over job competitions, management report cards and budget cuts have left federal employees feeling demoralized and undervalued. Many are headed toward retirement as soon as they're eligible.

But there's plenty you can do to revitalize the workforce. Start by finally settling the pay-for-performance debate, which has raged for nearly the entire Bush era. Sit down with federal labor unions, managers' organizations and key members of Congress to reach agreement on a performance management system that is fair in its appraisals and transparent in its intentions. Provide bonuses to employees who meet all their goals and demand accountability from those who come up short.

Until such wholesale changes are in place, start with minor improvements. Find a way to honor high-performing workers more regularly. Repay employees' student loans in return for a period of civil service. And allow retired civil servants to retain their pensions even if they are rehired by the government.


We've heard repeatedly that you want to go through the federal budget "line by line" in search of savings. While this sounded impressive on the campaign trail, it's hardly a novel idea. In fact, almost every recent president has pledged to root out poor performing programs to find savings and balance the budget. President Clinton tried it with the National Performance Review and President Bush made the Program Assessment Rating Tool a key element of his management agenda. PART has been lauded for gathering comprehensive performance data on more than 1,000 federal programs.

"We've gained a lot from the PART," says Dustin Brown, deputy assistant director for management at the Office of Management and Budget. "It really has grown the capacity of federal civil servants in terms of our ability to measure the effectiveness of government programs. We have clear measures in place and laid-out criteria for what it takes to be a successful program." Nevertheless, the effort remains controversial, mostly because there is not, and never will be, a hard and fast definition of a failing program.

Take advantage of the strides the Bush administration has made in compiling program performance information. Take it to the next step by using that data to improve program management. But realize that the decision to keep or to cut programs is political and will be handled in the political arena. And by the way, compared to what you will be spending on the financial sector bailout and an economic stimulus package, the savings you root out won't add up to much anyway.

No New Slogans

The federal workforce has reform fatigue. So enough with the sweeping management initiatives and catchy slogans. The Bush administration's President's Management Agenda, hard on the heels of President Clinton's National Performance Review, is the 12th major federal reform effort since the beginning of the 20th century. Every administration wants to leave its imprint on how government operates, but at this moment, there's no need to start anew or to make a futile effort to capture the public's imagination with a high-profile management initiative.

"There has been a remarkable level of improvement at both attention to results and public management during the past two administrations," says Donald F. Kettl, a political analyst and University of Pennsylvania professor who has written extensively about government reform. "The last thing we need to do is to start from scratch."

Instead, consider dusting off some of the innovative aspects of NPR that were left for dead eight years ago, such as empowering "reinvention laboratories" to bend and break some rules and regulations in the pursuit of genuine innovation. And find the parts of the PMA that have been working and keep them. The Bush team's focus on financial reporting, electronic government and human capital all appear to match your management philosophy.


Drawing a line between federal work that must be performed by government employees and that which can be outsourced to contractors is supposed to be fairly simple: If a task is defined as "inherently governmental" it must be kept in-house. But in reality nobody really knows what inherently governmental means. Private companies have been given contracts to interrogate U.S. prisoners, write government contracts and even investigate crimes by other contractors. If you truly want to bring reform to government procurement, start by developing a clear definition of what's inherently governmental.

"It is a flawed and widely misunderstood term that only engenders confusion," says Michael Cohen, a senior research fellow at New America Foundation, a think tank that has investigated the issue. The U.S. Code uses the term 15 times; the Defense Department needs more than 120 pages to describe its inherently governmental activities; and the Federal Acquisition Regulation lists 17 examples of activities reserved for government.

We need a new and modern definition of inherently governmental-one that recognizes the complexities of today's acquisition environment-for all agencies to follow. The 2009 Defense authorization bill calls for the Office of Management and Budget to establish a common definition. We urge you to pay attention to that work. It will set the tone for your entire contracting reform agenda.

Every Appointment Matters

A president-elect comes into office trailing a host of political supporters to whom he owes debts of gratitude. At the same time, there is a series of jobs in government that seem, well, sort of unimportant. That's a match made in heaven, right? Actually, no. Don't make the mistake of assuming that under-the-radar positions can safely be handed over to-forgive our use of the word-cronies. While top jobs at lesser-known agencies might seem like the perfect way to reward key supporters, many of them actually require even higher levels of executive skill and knowledge of the federal bureaucracy than high-profile Cabinet slots.

The administrator of the General Services Administration, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Special Counsel . . . none of these Bush administration officials were widely known until controversy propelled them onto the front pages. Appointments to these positions won't make headlines, but choose wisely here and you will be rewarded. And you'll avoid the taint of a major scandal at a "minor" agency.

Convert Some Appointees

It's a fact of federal life that thousands of political appointees at multiple layers in agencies cycle through every four to eight years. In reality, most don't stay even that long. Transferring even a small percentage of political positions to career status would improve agencies' institutional knowledge, decrease the dangerous number of vacancies at the end of every administration and leave a legacy of smooth transitions for future presidents.

The federal Senior Executives Association has urged you to consider filling key positions such as chief human capital officer, chief information officer, chief financial officer and chief operations officer at each agency with career senior executives. These jobs are more about management than about policy. Trust that career executives not only will provide competence and continuity in such positions, but that they also will remain true to their obligation to implement your policies.

Don't Underfund Oversight

From Hurricane Katrina to the discovery of tainted toys from China, federal agencies have failed repeatedly to meet their core missions in recent years. There are many explanations for the problem, but one common theme emerges: a lack of coherent oversight. It takes two distinct forms.

First, agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission simply need more resources to keep an eye on the industries they're supposed to oversee. "The federal cop needs to be on the regulatory beat," says Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a government watchdog group. But many agency leaders have not promoted a regulatory mentality. That mind-set has trickled down to career staff, who have not been encouraged to blow the whistle and often have not been protected when they do.

The second issue is that government's internal overseers-the inspectors general-have not seen increases in their resources commensurate with the recent rise in federal spending. With the country in dire financial straits, IGs should be given the tools to fend off waste, fraud and abuse and recover precious federal resources. But one word of warning: this remedy should be aimed at preventing future corruption and mismanagement. Spending an inordinate amount of time investigating the Bush administration will only distract attention from solving current problems and create more partisan rancor.