The “M” Returns to OMB

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ike a flickering neon sign atop an old motel on a forgotten stretch of highway, the "M" in the Office of Management and Budget has blinked back on with the president's nomination of a close friend and adviser to be the federal government's new management czar.

Clay Johnson is not just any nominee. He was the president's top management adviser in Texas, and worked tirelessly as the White House personnel director to get the president's team in place after the truncated transition in 2001. The soft-spoken Texan has eschewed the public spotlight in favor of a "get it done" approach that has earned the respect of critics and supporters alike. He says what's on his mind and follows through on his promises. If he's got a hidden agenda-like White House adviser Karl Rove, the president's personal Rasputin-Johnson hasn't shown it.

Johnson might be just the person to restore luster to the budget office's battered management division. The lights in the division have been fading for the better part of three decades as one president after another gave short shrift to improving management. Richard Nixon put the "M" in OMB in 1970 to make management the lead concern of the mighty budget office. But the management division was steadily whittled away until only a handful of people were left. The Clinton administration thought so little of the division that it created an entirely new and separate entity to manage Vice President Al Gore's reinventing government campaign.

As the management division atrophied, it became harder to find talented people to lead it. Despite strong appointments along the way, including Edward DeSeve, who served as acting management director under Clinton, most appointees couldn't wait to find other jobs. Clinton's first management director, Philip Lader, lasted six months before he jumped to the White House as deputy chief of staff. The average tenure was less than two years during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations. The post was vacant during the first year of the current Bush administration. No one wanted a job with such great responsibility and so little authority.

Johnson clearly believes otherwise. He has cast off his influential role as White House personnel chief for a job that can take years, even decades, to produce results. Yet, as Johnson must believe, it is also a job that can have a lasting impact on government performance-a rare opportunity in federal service.

Johnson faces three challenges in rebuilding OMB's management division. First, he must add staff. He never will have the hundreds of aides who once worked in management, but to make a difference, Johnson needs more than the two or three key staff members he has now. He already has succeeded in getting new space for his team in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, just across the alley from the White House's West Wing. Now, he must fill those offices with enough people to produce the analysis needed to advance his agenda.

Second, Johnson needs to make management performance an integral part of the annual budget process. OMB has already made some headway with its Performance Assessment Reporting Tool, which gives analysts a tool for linking performance to budget. That tool should include strong incentives for better management, as well as funding that can be allocated through Johnson's office to make improvements happen.

Finally, Johnson should corral the president's Office of Federal Procurement Policy, which has launched a series of backward reforms in the way government purchases everything from weapons to labor. To say that office is out of control is an understatement. Even as precision-guided bombs were falling on Baghdad, the office was turning back the clock on two decades of procurement reforms that made the purchase of those munitions easier and cheaper. And as civil servants worked on the home front to keep the military constantly supplied and battle-ready for the war against Saddam, the procurement office insisted that the Defense Department compete thousands of jobs to meet arbitrary targets.

Johnson knows there are plenty of good reasons for outsourcing federal jobs, not the least of which is to procure services that aren't available inside government. That's why the president's personnel office recently signed a contract with Monster.com, the private job-search leader, to build a state-of-the-art Web site to help people find federal jobs.

But meeting arbitrary targets is not one of those reasons. Nor should federal agencies be given the power to convert civil service jobs on a hunch and a prayer, as the procurement office recently proposed in a revision of the government's antiquated competition rules. Much as one can support the goal of faster, cheaper competitions for government work, the new rules would encourage agencies to end the game before the first pitch is thrown.

Johnson, who has taken the toughest management job in government, is clearly up to these challenges. He has not only turned on the "M" in OMB, but has cranked up the wattage.


Paul C. Light is director of the Brookings Institution's Center for Public Service and a professor at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service.


NEXT STORY: Great Expectations

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