How Biden Could Achieve His Management Priorities
Five things the administration could do to improve the odds of success.
The White House last month released its long-awaited management agenda. “The Biden-Harris Management Agenda Vision” describes the administration’s plan “for ensuring an equitable, effective and accountable federal government that delivers results for all.” It prioritizes three things: strengthening and empowering the federal workforce; delivering excellent, equitable, and secure federal services and customer experience; and managing the business of government to support Biden’s “Build Back Better” initiative.
There’s a lot to unpack in the beautifully designed, densely worded document the White House posted on Performance.gov. But it also leaves us wanting more detail about the goals and framework that will be used to drive measurable progress on the PMA. When those details are released next year, I’m hoping for a little more granularity in what is expected of agencies and how they will measure success.
The three new PMA priorities build on previous management agendas and address longstanding challenges. Recruitment and retention of talent remains a significant challenge. Improving the customer experience so Americans can seamlessly and equitably access promised benefits and services could measurably strengthen trust in government. And managing the business of government—a priority which seems to encompass acquisition, financial management, and grants management reform initiatives—is certainly worthy of sustained focus. Relying on communities of practice (e.g., interagency management councils), enhancing information technology management and cyber response, and strengthening the government’s evidence-based policymaking and data management capacity are among the “essential government capabilities and systems” the administration will use to drive its management agenda.
There are a number of things I hope to see as the administration rolls out more detail on its approach to achieving its goals:
Clarify what initiatives continue. Agencies are taxed as never before in implementing previous and new initiatives. Meeting the demands of the pandemic was hard enough; legislation associated with economic recovery, infrastructure investment, and potentially the Build Back Better Act are pushing massive spending through new and existing programs. The administration’s vision is a bit opaque on what previous management agenda initiatives continue and which ones, if any, cease. To ensure agencies can prioritize their investment of time, energy, and money, the administration should be clear about what starts, what stops, and what continues.
Appoint accountable officials. The PMA notably is signed by members of the President’s Management Council, signaling broad commitment across agencies to the principles in the vision. I hope the next iteration of the agenda specifies who in the administration is accountable for achieving which goals. In my experience, assigning an accountable official is a critical ingredient in an initiative’s success. Aligning agency officials and OMB officials with key responsibilities makes a powerful combination.
Define how you’ll measure and report success. I pine for the days of the Executive Branch Management Scorecard that was used to measure and report agency progress toward PMA goals. I may be among a minority in that regard, but the new PMA could use a simple framework for demonstrating how success will be measured and reported. Goals should be clear and transparent, as should progress or the lack thereof. The administration promises to “leverage the federal performance management framework to plan and measure progress,” and that’s a good thing. Setting a baseline so we know where we are and where we are going is also critical.
Identify resources needed for implementation. Accountable officials are just one piece of the puzzle required for success. No one official can achieve success alone, especially when success depends on a “whole of government” approach. What talent, tools and money will be invested in achieving the administration’s ambitious goals? Agencies want to know the administration will put its money (and people) where its mouth is and not just make this another unfunded mandate.
Ensure an integrated approach. A major risk to achieving success is lack of coordination across government and its diverse ecosystem of stakeholders. Many of the requirements that flow from the PMA initiatives will fall on state and local government and not-for-profit partners. Coordinating customer experience initiatives with diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility initiatives, for instance, is essential to the success of both priorities. Coordinating this complex web of projects and activities is an enormous challenge, but it is essential to moving the administration’s agenda forward.
The administration has set the stage for significant improvement across a discrete, but important set of priorities. Adding meat to the bones—a framework for measuring and driving success—would ensure we can chart improvement over time. Without such a framework, officials may be spinning their wheels. And with the level of trust in government where it is, the Biden administration can’t afford that.
Robert Shea, former Associate Director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, is the National Managing Principal for Public Policy at Grant Thornton.