Obama poised to name chief performance officer

President-elect Barack Obama could name the first federal chief performance officer as early as Wednesday, and observers are urging him to choose a candidate with superior managerial skills and deep knowledge of the federal bureaucracy.

During his presidential campaign, Obama vowed to establish a "SWAT team" led by a CPO dedicated to working with agencies to improve results for federal programs and eliminate waste and inefficiency. The CPO will "work with federal agencies to set tough performance targets and hold managers responsible for progress," Obama said in September 2008, pledging to meet regularly with Cabinet officials to review their agencies' progress.

The focus on having the CPO hold federal managers accountable is a concern for Robert Behn, a professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. By making the CPO responsible for both helping managers improve their agencies' performance and holding them accountable when they fail, Obama has created a "split personality CPO," Behn argued.

"The dominant personality is the accountability-holding part that's just sort of assumed," he said. "The phrasing of what Obama said in September … sends a pretty strong message about what this is all about, and it's less about helping people than about 'we're going to fire managers who don't produce results.'"

Adam Hughes, director of federal fiscal policy at OMB Watch, said while it's possible Obama could choose an auditor or top management official from the private sector, he thinks the position would benefit from a candidate with a deep-seated understanding of the federal government.

"I hope to see someone who understands the complexity of federal government programs … someone with significant experience in federal programs and an understanding of how they operate and how to navigate the bureaucracy," Hughes said.

This type of experience not only would help the appointee successfully navigate cultural barriers, but also lend the person credibility with those managers they'll oversee and work with, Hughes said.

Robert Shea, former OMB associate director for administration and government performance, said he believes OMB has developed a strong foundation on which the Obama administration can build, but that establishing a CPO position in the White House might help overcome the challenges the agency faces in integrating performance initiatives with the programs they're designed to improve.

"Having a chief performance officer in the White House reporting to the president gives you an opportunity to make the people responsible for achieving the president's priorities pay more attention to the importance of management in achieving those goals," said Shea, now a director with the global public sector of consultant firm Grant Thornton LLP.

Shea said it's also possible the OMB deputy director for management could be given the dual role of chief performance officer. While this would reverse his campaign stance that the performance team work in the White House, Obama's vow that the CPO will "report directly to the president" likely means the deputy director would gain a new level of access along with the additional title.

Clay Johnson, the deputy director for management and a longtime friend of President Bush, "had the ability to talk to the president," Shea said. "That gave him much greater authority than he otherwise would have. Giving the [deputy director for management] a reporting line to the president could provide that same enhanced authority."

Behn views someone like William Bratton, current Los Angeles police chief and former New York City police commissioner, as the ideal candidate for the job. Bratton instituted the renowned CompStat program, a management tool lauded for its success in mapping and tackling New York City crime. The only problem with choosing someone like Bratton, Behn said, is he's not likely to take the job.

"It'll be hard to convince the really good, super performance manager to take this job," Behn said. "And if you're Obama, don't you want that guy running something directly?"

The Obama team was mum on the details of who might serve in the position and what the job would entail.

"There will be clues in what gets said when the announcement is made and even bigger clues in who gets picked," Behn said.

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