Can Presidents Be Managers?

Barack Obama isn't the only president to face criticism for management failures. Barack Obama isn't the only president to face criticism for management failures. American Spirit /

In July, President Obama told his Cabinet that management of the federal government would take top priority during the remainder of his administration. The pattern is familiar—presidents run for office not to manage the government but to champion and create new policy. The first part of their presidency is preoccupied with marshaling support for broad policy agendas that served as the rallying cry for the political coalitions that got them nominated and elected. Having achieved electoral victories, they then proceed to get mugged by reality—bedeviled by a host of unanticipated management problems that never registered on the political radar screen.

Presidents who bask in the policy limelight are surprised and puzzled when their support erodes. While the line between campaigning and governing has blurred, most citizens grasp the difference when there is a failure to provide the most basic services they expect from federal agencies.

President Obama achieved policy victories in his first two years that, for the most part, public opinion ignores. The passage of national health reform after a nearly 100-year battle will stand as a lasting achievement for the ages. Financial regulatory reforms in the Dodd-Frank legislation may not have solved financial bubbles forever, but the regulation of financial institutions is on firmer footing than before. The Recovery Act, passed in the first month of Obama’s presidency, provided $800 billion in stimulus through spending and tax cuts that economists give credit for staunching the loss of jobs and helping save the economy from the ravages of a depression.

Yet the Obama administration has been victimized by a litany of management failures. More than 50 percent of Americans now say they question the management competence of the president. They point to the Veterans Affairs Department’s cover-up of failures to see patients in a timely manner, the IRS’ use of questionable criteria to ban certain groups from tax exempt status, the failures of the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service (now the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management) to impose regulatory limits on oil companies--contibuting to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the widespread cheating on tests mandated under No Child Left Behind, and the botched rollout of health insurance exchanges across the country.

These kinds of problems are not unique to this administration. George W. Bush—the MBA president—followed a similar pattern. His early policy victories included tax cuts in 2001, No Child Left Behind, Medicare prescription drug coverage, and the war against terror following the Sept. 11 attacks. In the wake of these policy initiatives, however, his administration became waylaid by all manner of management problems.

Multiple factors seem to explain this dilemma:

  • Federal programs increasingly draw ever higher levels of public expectations and media attention to federal bureaucracies and their programs. The victories expanding the federal role in addressing numerous problems come back to haunt the presidents engineering these policy expansions as well as their successors.
  • Flawed theories behind many programs cripple them at birth, consigning them to a future of implementation flaws and disappointments. Cheating on school tests under No Child Left Behind, for instance, illustrates what can happen when well-intentioned performance measures become the basis for meting out pay and sanctions for public agencies. While performance pay may work in the private sector, it usually fails in the public sector because many significant goals cannot be measured well.                                   
  • Policy victories become hollow during implementation as scarce resources and the attention of top officials moves to other crises and away from systematic pursuit of successful management. The VA crisis is a case in point. The attention devoted to pursuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq lacked the systematic follow-through needed to provide the agency with sufficient resources to care for the wave of seriously injured veterans needing care.
  • Simple efficiency requirements (such as time limits on decision-making) seem convincing at first glance, but they often lead to unanticipated negative consequences. Causes of the Deepwater oil spill were linked to requirements that MMS respond to oil company requests in a short period of time when federal employees know they don’t have enough time to conduct analyses for these requests. 
  • Presidents gain more credit for policy victories than for management successes. The tax cuts and war on terror garnered significant success for Bush, while Obama gained credit at least from the left for health reform and bringing the economy back from the threshold of depression in 2012. Such credit, however, generally does not accrue for administering tax laws appropriately, providing timely and quality care to veterans and others, or even delivering Social Security checks on time.
  • Confusion over what management success means in the public sector. Much of what has been viewed as management is directly borrowed from the private sector, even though public goals are more conflicted and implementation chains involve many diverse players from state and local, nonprofit and private contractors. The goals of each agency and program often conflict. IRS must collect all revenue owed without burdening taxpayers or tax exempt groups in the process. The health insurance exchanges must guarantee access to all who are eligible without driving costs up or providers out. The balance between these conflicting goals and priorities shifts over time; when it does we often call these “management failures.” But often they are a result of second-guessing by a nation that has changed its collective view about what is important.

We wish there were a fix for these issues, but many of them are woven into the fabric of our governance system and its incentives.

Ironically in recent years, the growing presidential management portfolio has been accompanied by a corresponding growth in attention to management capacity.  The White House Office of Management and Budget has fortified the “M” by recruiting a deputy director specifically for management. Financial, performance, information systems and human capital management have been bolstered by reform legislation and the appointment of chiefs responsible for those management functions at each federal agency. So, the president has some help from dedicated civil servants and appointees—he is not managing alone. But only the president can marshal the forces to achieve policy goals in a fragmented political system where power is diffused and shared among numerous federal, state, local and private organizations. 

Deep-seated management challenges require an engaged White House to instill the urgency and institute the reforms needed to head off future Hurricane Katrina and VA scandals. Despite the crippling blow that such problems can deal to their administration, presidents are reluctant to make this investment of personal time and energy.

One modest change would be for media, punditry, academics and even White House staff to develop a perspective on public administration that acknowledges the complexity and contradictions within the American political system. Actually delivering on bold policy promises will require leaders and managers to take the unique challenges of delivering complex programs through a multilayered federal system seriously.

Let’s relieve ourselves of the myth that public management is like a machine—put your money in and get your services at the push of a button. Implementing complex programs is more aptly described as a new stage of politics and policymaking where the losers in the legislative fights often feel empowered by instant replay. Whether it be advancing infrastructure or collecting taxes, public management calls for more realistic expectations, effective partnerships with other sectors, and political investment by our elected officials.

Paul L. Posner is director of the Public Administration program at George Mason University and Beryl A. Radin is a professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University.

This story has been updated to reflect the renaming of the Minerals Management Service to the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management.

(Image via American Spirit/

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