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.