In building a high-performance government, President Obama has rejected a “do as I say” approach for one of “do as I do.”
Although many presidents have talked about the need to improve executive branch performance, President Obama is the first to assume personal leadership responsibility for doing so. Without that impetus from the chief executive officer of the executive branch, there is unlikely to be the kind of change many have talked about but none so far has effected.
True leaders model the behavior they seek. While prior presidents -- both Democratic and Republican -- have proposed various new public policies after railing against the supposedly ineffective and inefficient executive branch, none has been willing to devote his time or that of agency heads to implementing those policies. The gap between policy creation and its implementation is deep and wide, and so far no president has been willing to leap the abyss, much less risk falling into it.
Obama, however, has announced a change in this pattern. He has pledged to use his most valuable resource -- his time -- to improve agency productivity. In the Analytical Perspectives section of his fiscal 2010 budget proposal, the president stated that he would conduct "meetings with Cabinet officers to review their progress toward meeting performance improvement targets." Obama also has made it clear he expects his Cabinet officers to spend their time on increasing productivity.
Office of Management and Budget Director Peter R. Orszag has put teeth in Obama's plan by directing agencies to define outcome-oriented goals, the internal and external programs that contribute to accomplishing them, the people responsible, and the strategy for reaching the targets by July 30.
When performance matters to the president and his top political appointees, it also will be important to members of the Senior Executive Service, mid-level managers, first-level supervisors and employees. When performance matters to the president, political appointees can no longer avoid personal engagement and blame others for nonperformance. Instead, they must devote themselves to engagement and discussion about how to achieve their goals with their workforces.
It also is easier to delegate authority for achieving goals when they are specific and based on outcomes. Political appointees can be satisfied that their policy goals are identified, and they can measure the results, rather than attempting to micromanage.
Obama stated in the budget document that he wants to see "collaborating across levels of government" during the process of setting agency outcome goals and creating plans to achieve results. He recognizes that, given the complexity of the problems and the need for innovation, it is not possible to achieve goals without collaboration.
The president is modeling the behavior he seeks. He has created 20 czars, each of whom has the responsibility to collaborate across agencies when program outcomes cross agency lines. He has also created a chief performance officer position whose job includes developing "a performance agenda across government."
Recognizing the collaborative role employees must play through their unions to improving performance, Obama also has indicated he understands that an engaged workforce is a higher-performing workforce.
This attitude contrasts with the Clinton administration's recognition of -- but failure to enforce -- the need to collaborate with employees through their unions to increase performance, and the Bush administration's attempt to enforce agency performance goal accomplishment while rejecting collaboration to achieve the targets.
Collaboration as a tool for increasing performance has advantages:
- Learning takes place as decisions are considered;
- Better decisions are made;
- Decision-making takes longer, but implementation is faster and with much less resistance;
- Working relationships improve;
- Participation is broader and deeper, and leads to broader and deeper support for results;
- Employees at all levels have a clearer idea about how their role advances the mission of the agency; and
- Employees at all levels have an opportunity to act on the public service impulse that brought them to the federal government.
- Hierarchical, stove-piped organizations that use information as power rather than as a resource to share to make better decisions;
- The enduring myth of the need for hierarchical control;
- The difficulty of changing relationships that were built on mistrust; and
- The significant reorientation required to refocus from speedy decision-making to decision implementation.
Robert M. Tobias is a distinguished practitioner in residence and director of the Institute for the Study of Policy Implementation at American University. He was president of the National Treasury Employees Union from 1983 to 1999.