How is Obama doing in managing the federal bureaucracy?

January 21, 2010

Managing the agencies who carry out the policies requires a focus on what government is supposed to do.  Democrats tend to make better managers, because they wish government to work well and efficiently.  Republicans prefer government to go away, and too often since Dwight Eisenhower’s administration, Republicans have intentionally created havoc for agencies, to stymie their operation at all.

So, how has Obama done in his first year?  A couple of radio hosts in Washington, D.C., asked expert opinion.

From the Federal Drive blog at Federal News Radio, which accompanies the radio program by Tom Temin and Jane Norris at 1500 AM in Washington, D.C.

By Suzanne Kubota
Senior Internet Editor

Today marks President Obama’s one year in office.

Federal News Radio asked Joe Ferrara, Associate Dean at Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute, to give the President a report card on the Chief Executive’s effect on federal employees and the operation and business of government.

Here are the Dean’s grades and a few comments:

Overall grade: B
“In terms of some of the initiatives he’s been pushing: stabilizing the economy, pushing health care.”

Federal Government Management Issues

Effort: A
“They have definitely shown a lot of energy in pushing initiatives on contracting, transparency, modernizing technology, etc.”

Results: C
“In part because it’s still early. Yes, he has been in office for a year, but as you well know, it takes time for changes to sort of filter through a bureaucracy as large as the federal government.”

Overall Planning

    “If you look at the last couple of administrations, certainly Bush and Cheney…their umbrella concept was the President’s Management Agenda. They ran it out of the White House. They ran it out of OMB. Clinton and Gore had Reinventing Government. They ran that out of the White House, not necessarily OMB, but a task force made up largely of career federal employees. But they had an over-arching concept: Reinventing Government.”
    The lack of a stated overall approach is “worrisome.” “As a former federal employee, I worry about your average federal manager out there seeing the initiative of the day coming forth from OMB, coming forth from the White House, and wondering how does this all fit together.


    “I know they’ve published this Open Government directive. I think that’s definitely a step in the right direction.” and the recovery and stimulus fund websites make it “easier for Congress, your average citizen, people in industry to figure out where’s all the money going and what are agencies doing.”

    One caveat: “politicians themselves, from the President on down” have to be transparent in pronouncements and the way they make decisions. “It’s not just the technology solution to transparency. That’s an important part of it, but there’s also political solution and I think ultimately you need those two to go together for citizens to really have a strong sense of trust in what the Government’s doing.”


    The delay in announcing a selection for cybersecurity coordinator “more viewed as sort of the Obama-style of gathering inputs, mulling over options, getting second opinions, getting third opinions – a very extensive vetting process kind of like what we saw with the Afghanistan decision. On the one hand, there’s nothing wrong with that.” On the other hand, said Ferrara, the longer you take to make decisions the more likely it is people will think you don’t put a high priority on the subject.

    Cybersecurity “is a very complex bundle of policy issues” and could explain the apparent delay.

Joe Ferrara is Associate Dean at Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute.

President Obama’s self-reporting report card to Congress, the State of the Union address, is scheduled to be delivered a week from today, January 27th, at 9 pm EST.

Download an MP3 version of Ferrara’s remarks, from the Federal Radio site.

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Reading for government classes: Obama’s shift in governing philosophy

January 28, 2009

No, Obama didn’t change his mind.  He’s changing the way government does business — putting government on a more solidly-based, business-like model for performance, according to at least one observer.  That’s the shift discussed.

And it’s about time, I say.

Max Stier’s commentary on the Fed Page of the Washington Post quickly lays out the case that Obama’s making big changes.  Copy it for students in your government classes (or history classes, if you’re studying the presidency in any depth).  Stier wrote:

There are some fundamental reasons why our federal government’s operational health has been allowed to steadily deteriorate. It’s hard to change what you don’t measure, and our government operates in an environment with very few meaningful and useful measurements for performance. Perhaps more significantly, it is run by short-term political leadership that has little incentive to focus on long-term issues.

A typical presidential appointee stays in government for roughly two years and is rewarded for crisis management and scoring policy wins. These individuals are highly unlikely to spend significant energy on management issues, when the benefits of such an investment won’t be seen until after they are long gone.

(According to the Post, “Max Stier is president and CEO of Partnership for Public Service, a group that seeks to revitalize the federal government.”  I don’t know of him otherwise.)

Political appointees can be good, but too many have not been over the past 25 years.  A bad enough political appointee can frustrate even the most adept, dedicated-to-the-people’s-business career federal service employees, and frustrate the law and good management of agencies.

Let’s wish them all good luck.

Potential questions to follow-up this article in discussions:

  • Constitution: Under the Constitution, who specifically is charged with managing the federal agencies, the “federal bureaucracy?  What is that charge, in the Constitution?
  • Constitution, politics: What is the role of Congress in managing the federal bureaucracy?
  • Evaluating information sources: Do some research on the internet.  Is Max Stier a credible source of information on managing federal agencies?  Why, or why not?  Who provides an opposing view to Stier’s?  Are they credible?  Why or why not?
  • Evaluating information sources: Is the Fed Page of the Washington Post a good source of information about the federal bureaucracy?  (Students may want to investigate columnists and features at this site; the Fed Page was started as a one-page feature of the newspaper in the early 1980s, covering for the public issues that tended to slip through the cracks of other news coverage, but which were very important to the vast army of federal employees and federal policy wonks in Washington.)  What other sources might be expected?  What other sources are there?  (Federal News Radio is another site that focuses on the functions of the federal agencies — Mike Causey started out writing the column on the bureaucracy in the Washington Post; this is an AM radio station dedicated to covering federal functions in the federal city.  Other sources should include National Journal, and Congressional Quarterly, especially if you have those publications in your school library).
  • History, maybe a compare and contrast question: How has the federal bureaucracy changed over time?  Compare the size, scope and people employed by the federal government under the administrations of George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant, James Garfield, William McKinley, Dwight Eisenhower, and Bill Clinton.  What trends become clear?  What major changes have occurred (civil service protection, for example)?
  • Analysis: How does the transition process from one president to the next affect federal employees and the operation of government?
  • Analysis: How does the transition of President Barack Obama compare with past transitions — especially that of President Franklin Roosevelt, who also faced a tough economic crisis, or Ronald Reagan, whose transition signalled a major shift in government emphasis and operation?

What other questions did your students find in this article?  Comments are open.

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