Implementer-in-Chief

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Bob Tobias, the director of American University’s Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation, wrote a short piece in the Washington Post last month about how it is important that the next President create a focus on implementing policy, not just creating it.  He recommends regular meetings with cabinet secretaries to review their department’s performance goals as one way of demonstrating commitment.

Are there better ways for a President to ensure things happen as a result of policies made?  After all, the President has multiple responsibilities – head of state, commander-in-chief, policy leader, etc.  How can he or she be expected to engage in the time-consuming job of ensuring things get done by government, other than the occasional disaster or crisis?

What are some of the options?

Tobias suggests one-on-one meetings between the President and each cabinet secretary on his or her Department’s performance.  Historically, the President has met one-on-one with secretaries on policy development, on specific problems, and on budget appeals.  Adding “performance” meetings to mix might be a stretch, but worthwhile.

Another approach, which has never been used very successfully in the U.S., would be to convene regular cabinet meetings.  While attempted by past Presidents, such as Jimmy Carter, these meeting tend to oftentimes be more symbolic than substantive, since the substantive interactions have typically been carried out through White House staff and OMB.

A third option would be to restructure an existing communication channel between a secretary and the President.  Most Presidents receive a weekly summary of “what’s going on” from their cabinet secretaries, which are collected by the Cabinet Secretary – a White House official who coordinates all communications between the Cabinet and the President.  The President could ask the Cabinet Secretary to have these informal weekly notes be more structured and organized around outcome-oriented themes, such as those outlined in each agency’s strategic plans.  In the past, Presidents would receive dozens of pages of unstructured information from their cabinet members, on important issues, but not necessarily around outcome-oriented, or implementation-oriented themes.  While this creates a more structured information channel, it does not necessarily result in regular interaction.

A fourth option, used by President Bush, is the use of publicly-available scorecards on how well programs work.  The scorecard approach rates individual programs and the management capacity of major agencies.  This approach creates a White House-level focus on results, but this is agency- and program-specific.  It does not capture how government works across boundaries.

A fifth option, discussed with more frequency, is the adaptation of the Baltimore CitiStat approach at the federal level.  This approach could create a strong focal point for cross-agency and cross-program implementation efforts around selected major policy initiatives.  But doing this would require some institutional changes in the how the White House staff is structured and this would need to be done early in a new Administration, maybe even in the transition when all the White House staff positions are vacant (and able to be reallocated).

There are probably more options, but the notion that Tobias raises – having a President who creates and uses institutional mechanisms to ensure policy implementation occurs – is appealing.  The means for doing this, however, will depend more on the leadership style and strategy of the next President.

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4 Responses to “Implementer-in-Chief”

  1. one_time97 Says:

    John–

    I would be interested in your views (and Bob’s) on the advantages and disadvantages of an implementer-in-chief vs. a President who see his role more as inspiring and setting a strategic direction. This recently has become a bit of an issue, of course among the Democrats. (See http://news.rgj.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2008801150354) I am less interested in the particulars of that debate since it partisan and beyond my scope, but the general point being raised is a good one to consider.

  2. John Kamensky Says:

    Dear One-Timer – I wrote this posting with the tongue-in-cheek title of “Implementer-in-Chief” before the Clinton-Obama debate on the topic. I never thought the topic would actually be discussed in the campaign! I was fascinated by the interchange, captured by Government Executive’s editor Tom Shoop in his blog yesterday (see http://blogs.govexec.com/fedblog/2008/01/clinton_obama_put_focus_on_man.php).

    My short-hand observation is: there’s not an “either/or” distinction between the need for a visionary versus an implementer in the Presidency. We need both traits. Too much in either direction results in disadvantages that outweigh any advantages of a particular leaning. The art is to get the balance right, at the right time. I’ll elaborate in my next posting.

    I thought it was interesting that in yesterday’s Washington Post, columnist David Broder also focused on this issue, but from another vantage point. He pointed to candidates in the Republican primary who had more executive branch management experience than the Democratic front runners. (see http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/01/16/AR2008011603444.html)

    I’m amazed at how much the campaigns are focusing on leadership and managerial competence, at such an early stage in the election cycle. I can’t remember this occurring before.

    I’m assuming the “Bob” you are referring to is my old colleague Bob Stone, the former “energizer in chief” of the National Performance Review in the Clinton-Gore Administration (also known as the National Partnership for Reinventing Government; see: http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/npr/index.htm) In that role, he was an inspiring visionary, and kept his hand on how the operation was managed. I’m sure he’d be more than willing to weigh in!

  3. Bob Stone Says:

    The President’s first responsibility is to inspire and to set strategic directions clearly enough that people can apply their talents to moving in the direction the President has set.

    Second he or she must find and appoint people with the talent and motivation to carry out the responsibilities they’ll be given.

    Third is to keep repeating #1 and to keep checking in with cabinet members on how they’re doing. This can be done effectively and efficiently through simple performance agreements between the President and each cabinet member–no more than a page and no more than three objectives. The agenda for EVERY meeting between the President and the Cabinet member should start with the performance agreement. No red-yellow-green circles, but a conversation. It’s still the best way for the President to close the loop between vision and performance.

  4. Norman M. Macdonald Says:

    I belive the point was let’s look at the system now being used in Baltimore and is being put in place in the entire state of Maryland. It is a template on how to implement a new paradigm.

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