Presidential Performance Agreements

by

John Kamensky, Senior Fellow, IBM Center for The Business of GovernmentCome November 2008, the winning team for one of the presidential candidates will be asking the question, “We won! Now what??” Of course, the answer is, “We have to deliver on the President’s promises!” But exactly who actually delivers? The President’s appointees, of course.

But how do appointees find out what the President wants? This is a perennial problem. Former Reagan Treasury Secretary Donald Regan wrote in his memoirs that after he was sworn in as secretary, he waited for a call from the White House telling him what the President wanted to do. He served four years as secretary without ever having a one-on-one meeting with President Reagan. And he was only one of more than 3,000 presidential appointees! So how do they find out? Regan was advised to read the newspapers to see what the White House might be saying about Treasury. But there must be a better way.

In the early Clinton Administration, the National Performance Review recommended voluntary Presidential Performance Agreements with the heads of major departments and agencies. Of the 24 major departments and agencies, about 10 agreed to this arrangement. Examples include: Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor; Bruce Babbitt, Secretary of the Interior; Federico Pena, Secretary of Transportation; and Roger Johnson, Administrator of the General Services Administration.

The process lasted for several years before falling into disuse. White House policy council staff and the Office of Management and Budget hated the process because it allowed the secretaries to come to a direct agreement with the President. While they had input, they couldn’t easily put their imprint on it or change it later. Also, congressional committees disliked it because they did not have input. Secretaries, though, did like it because it gave them greater leverage with White House and OMB staffs and greater clarity as to what was expected. They could then turn to their staffs and say that they needed to help the Secretary meet his or her commitments to the President. The official reason for the demise was the implementation of the annual performance plans under the new Government Performance and Results Act. This created organizational, rather than personal, commitments. Some felt this was more stable.

In the early George W. Bush Administration, some of the cabinet members crafted performance agreements with their political underlings. For example, Secretary for Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson drafted “performance contracts” with his assistant secretaries and senior leaders. This did not last beyond most of the early appointees, in part because many appointees believe they were appointed by, and were accountable to, the President and not the Secretary.

In a recent Council for Excellence in Government seminar, former ambassador Prudence Bushnell commented that the President traditionally sends a personal letter to each ambassador that spells out the authorities and responsibilities of each ambassador before he or she is posted. It makes clear the ambassador has authority over all the different federal agencies that might be assigned within that country. She said this tradition continues and could serve as a model for other agencies as well.

So there is a track record of Presidents conveying clear expectations to appointees. Should the next President build on this or take some other approach?

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