President George W. Bush with President-elect Obama in 2008.

President George W. Bush with President-elect Obama in 2008. Eric Draper/White House/AP

The Painful Management Lessons From Five Presidencies

Forget the next big idea, and focus on what’s already been hatched.

No one runs for president to run the government. But presidential legacies are in no small part formed by how an administration manages the federal enterprise and improves its collective capacity to address the public’s high expectations for their government. Failing to see that the laws and agencies are “faithfully executed” can lead to big trouble.

Good management doesn’t win elections, but bad management can ruin presidencies. To paraphrase Mario Cuomo, presidents may campaign in poetry, but they have to govern in prose.

President Obama, like his predecessors, has fallen victim to management problems, and overcoming those issues is necessary to salvaging the policy agenda. The painful lessons of Obama and his predecessors give a clear warning: Voters don’t reward good performance, but they fiercely punish bad management. For George Bush, the point at which his negatives exceeded his positives and never recovered was Hurricane Katrina in September 2005. Likewise, Obama suffered with the launch of the Obamacare website in October 2013, which similarly struck in the fifth year of the administration.

The Bush’s and Obama’s problems were basically managerial. The managerial failures created a negative narrative into which other problems played and opponents relentlessly pursued. For Obama, they include the Internal Revenue Service, HealthCare.gov, the General Services Administration, the Veterans Affairs Department, the Secret Service and a list of other management mishaps.

A recent report by George Mason University’s Centers on the Public Service highlights conclusions from a forum featuring the leaders of management improvement efforts during the Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. The forum was co-sponsored by Oliver Wyman, the National Academy of Public Administration and Public Financial Publication Inc.

Remarkably, there was considerable agreement among the former Office of Management and Budget deputy directors for management at the forum. They noted there had been significant progress across administrations in leading the management of the federal government, and they were aligned on the way forward. They agreed on three points:

  • There is greater need for every administration to establish a management framework. The growing range of federal programs has served to increase the stakes associated with federal programs while at the same time making implementation more demanding and complex.

  • OMB has be involved in establishing and implementing this management framework. Linkage with the budget helps ensure that agencies give presidential management initiatives serious attention.

  • Each administration should build on the management initiatives of prior administrations. While political platforms will differ, each administration nonetheless is held accountable for managing the complex federal enterprise and is blamed if problems occur on its watch. Managing government effectively and efficiency is a challenge that calls on common skills and wisdom by leaders regardless of their political brand.

Improving the management of government is a long-term challenge that requires dogged consistency across administrations to make sustainable progress. The next administration is sure to discard Obama’s performance labels, but his management agenda has a strong foundation that largely builds on prior administrations.  A new administration should be forewarned to temper inclinations to foist new ideas on federal managers, with misplaced expectations for delivering a pot of savings at the end of the rainbow. Every administration comes into the White House thinking its performance improvement plans will save millions of dollars. But it turns out the only way to save significant amounts of money in government is to do less of government.

Candidates often believe a new president’s legacy depends on new programs or initiatives. It is the thankless job of implementing existing programs and operations well, however, that will ultimately determine the legacy of a president. Management improvement will not depend on creating the next “big idea,” but instead ton taking advantage of performance measures to implement and deliver the policies and programs that have already been hatched. Presidents get elected because of leadership; they succeed because of management. In the end, management failures end up hurting president’s ability to lead.

Jonathan Breul is a fellow of the National Academy Public Administration and executive director emeritus of the IBM Center for the Business of Government. Paul L. Posner is director of the Public Administration program at George Mason University.

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