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The President’s Management Agenda: A Work in Progress Two Decades On

A look back at the creation of the first PMA and the lessons for leaders today.

This week, the release of the Trump administration’s Fiscal Year 2021 Budget Proposal was accompanied by several management chapters tied to the president’s management agenda. The agenda, commonly referred to as the PMA, reflects a set of initiatives and activities intended to improve the effectiveness and efficiency by which agencies serve their constituents and carry out their missions. While much focus is on the content of the current PMA, which will be updated this spring, 2021 will mark the 20th year since an agenda by that name was introduced. This milestone merits a look back at the creation of the PMA and the lessons for subsequent management agendas.

Origins of the PMA

Numerous administrations led management initiatives across agencies prior to 2001. The “Management by Objective” program in the 1970s was aimed at improving efficiency in social programs. A decade later, “Reform 88” was championed by Office of Management and Budget Director Joe Wright to look at financial management and other mission support functions. And as my colleague John Kamensky noted in a previous post, the National Partnership for Reinventing Government served as a management reform beachhead in the 1990s.

When the first administration of a new century arrived in 2001 under President George W. Bush, new OMB Director Mitch Daniels came to Washington from a successful career in industry. His focus from day one was management. Daniels sought advice from OMB career staff, including senior advisor for management Jonathan Breul, who advised reaching out to Comptroller General David Walker at the General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office) and Senator Fred Thompson, ranking member of the Senate Government Affairs Committee, among others. Those meetings resulted in a long list of potential topics to address in a “management agenda.”

OMB Deputy Director Sean O’Keefe, along with Breul (who was later my predecessor as head of the IBM Center), led a process of winnowing the topics into broad areas that GAO and others had long recognized as risk areas for government. They were soon joined by respected third party executive Robert O’Neill, who came to OMB on a detail from his position as leader of the National Academy of Public Administration. These three leaders, working with agency and OMB officials across different management disciplines, settled on five areas of focus for the new agenda:

  • Strategic Management of Human Capital 
  • Competitive Sourcing 
  • Improved Financial Performance
  • Expanded Electronic Government
  • Budget and Performance Integration

President Bush released these five topics (along with nine other initiatives focused on mission and program operations) in the first PMA in August 2001, as a supplement to the first budget of the new administration. The first president with an MBA prioritized progress on the management agenda in interactions with his cabinet.

The First PMA in Practice 

Within each of these five management areas, OMB worked with the President’s Management Council to develop high level goals and performance measures for agencies to follow. Progress on these measures were displayed in a “stoplight” graphic (such as this 2004 version originally posted on Results.Gov) for each agency. Such an easily visualized dashboard came from a suggestion by OMB Controller Mark Everson, who had used similar systems for management reviews as an industry executive prior to his appointment to OMB. To capture the fact that the baseline performance and improvement actions for each agency varied across the five dimensions, one set of scores reflected what the agencies actually achieved, and a second reflected their effort at improvement.

The OMB Resource Management Offices assigned the color scores for each agency and worked with their colleagues in the OMB management offices. For example, the e-government scores input from my staff in the Information Policy and Technology Branch, supported Mark Forman as the new Associate Director for IT and E-Government. Agencies were understandably reluctant to have their scores shown in public, a step actively debated by the PMC. Breul recalls that one deputy secretary was quite adamant that such scores not be made public, but he and his peers were convinced otherwise when OMB Director Daniels agreed to have OMB scores made public as well (and OMB had a lot of red marks in the early days).

Over the next several years, agencies would take action to improve their management performance and thus their scores. This was a result of two main pressure points:

  • The President would focus time on each agency’s score in cabinet meetings, even going so far as to rearrange the seating to allow “greener” agencies to sit closer to him in the meeting.
  • After Clay Johnson became OMB Deputy Director for Management in 2003, he significantly raised attention to the PMA in meetings with agency leaders and at each management council session.  

The PMA led to numerous other initiatives, including the introduction of the Performance Assessment Rating Tool (PART) as a way to link specific program performance to budget decisionmaking; and the E-Government strategy known as Project Quicksilver that introduced 25 initiatives designed to leverage technology for improved services to citizens, businesses, other levels of government, and federal employees.

Implications for the Future

Every subsequent administration has brought forward a PMA to address issues of importance, and often these issues have built on rather than differed from one presidency to the next (for a look back at this progress from the perspective of four OMB deputy directors for management, see this extensive discussion with Margaret Weichert, Andrew Mayock, Clay Johnson and Sally Katzen at our Center’s 20th anniversary event). For example, E-Government paved a pathway for Open Government, both of which inform the current focus on IT Modernization and the new PMA element of a Data Strategy (it’s worth noting that the E-Government agenda had its origins in the government’s move to the Internet from the 1990s led by the National Performance Review under then Vice President Al Gore). And each of the last two administrations has built a strong program around “cross-agency priority goals” (see history in this Center report by John Kamensky).

The PMA’s origin and history point to a number of key lessons:

  • The core focus on five areas with a quarterly, publicly-reported “stoplight” metric was both simple to follow and powerful as an accountability signal. Easily understandable and transparent metrics have often brought more change across agencies than complex systems that track too many priorities.
  • The PMA’s intersection with senior official reviews and the focused attention it received from the highest levels of government, including congressional leaders, cabinet officials and OMB, made these initiatives meaningful for senior program and mission functions.  Successful management initiatives have employed similar channels of visibility to connect with agency leaders.
  • Continuity and bipartisan progress demonstrate a key lesson that started with the first PMA. Setting up an objective process for prioritizing, executing, and measuring progress in how agencies manage their programs and operations helps any administration serve the public more effectively and efficiently. Establishing such a process early can enable progress in multiple mission and mission support areas.  

Career and political leaders at OMB have made the PMA, now entering its 20th year, an expected and highly visible activity in any administration, as evidenced by the Trump administration’s focus on the PMA in its 2021 budget request released earlier this week.

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