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That Time acronymic management fads were all the rage

When an alphabet soup of concepts for organizational improvement swept through government. 

The latest in an intermittent series looking back at groundbreaking, newsmaking, appalling and amusing events in government history.

Government lives by its acronyms. From the simple names of agencies to designations of programs, policies and projects, thousands of these little pieces of alphabetic shorthand bounce around federal offices every day. The Defense Department has an official Terminology Program to keep track of its myriad array of abbreviations. An overview document describing the program contains no fewer than five acronyms in its first paragraph alone.

There’s one particular kind of federal alphabet soup, though, that’s different: the management fads that had their heyday in the latter part of the 20th century. In those days, it seemed like every week there was a new brand of elixir aimed at revitalizing the bureaucracy—usually borrowed from the latest private-sector trends. 

To a greater or lesser extent, all of these efforts were aimed at making federal programs run more efficiently and ultimately, save taxpayer dollars. But none of them fully succeeded, in part because it’s very difficult to forge a link between a program’s performance and its budget.

Nevertheless, federal agencies have spent a lot of time, effort and money trying to do just that. The modern era of management by fad started with the Hoover Commission in 1949, which advocated for the idea of performance budgeting. That remained a relatively amorphous concept until the launch of the acronymic revolution in 1965 with President Lyndon Johnson’s mandate that agencies adopt the Planning-Programming-Budgeting System, or PPBS. Under PPBS, agencies were supposed to set up sophisticated systems to analyze budget options associated with long-term policy objectives.

Management by Objectives (MBO), followed in 1973, with President Nixon explicitly requiring that agencies link their goals to budget requests. On the heels of MBO came the Carter administration’s ZBB, for Zero-Based Budgeting. It forced agencies to craft their budgets from scratch every fiscal year—including providing an option for spending below current levels. 

After Ronald Reagan directed his focus to simply cutting the size of government, the acronymic trend picked up again in the George H.W. Bush administration, when Total Quality Management was all the rage. TQM, as its name suggests, was aimed at getting federal employees and managers to relentlessly focus on improving the quality of their work and its outputs. The zero-defect initiative had mixed success because it frequently lacked either the carrot of monetary incentives for employees who achieved success or the stick of budgetary consequences for failure to do so.

The acronymic heyday of management improvement ended in the early 1990s. But the focus on improving government didn’t end. It just became less about short-term fads and more about long-term efforts. So came reinventing government (and later reengineering government) during the Clinton administration, and George W. Bush’s Program Assessment Rating Tool. 

Since then, presidents and the management officials they appoint haven’t made much of an effort to attach acronymically catchy names to their government improvement initiatives. In fact, the past three administrations have used the catch-all term President’s Management Agenda to label their administrative reform packages. But that’s just a generic term for a list of age-old ideas, from overhauling the federal hiring process to updating government’s procurement systems, that everyone seems to agree on but can’t seem to find the will to implement. 

Maybe the PMA just needs a new acronym.