Archive for February 3rd, 2009

Delivering on Obama Promises

February 3, 2009

Yesterday I saw the first news article decrying how President Obama had broken his first campaign promise: “Promise No. 234: Allow five days of public comment before signing bills.”  The President signed his first bill, the Ledbetter Act, without first posting it for a five-day comment period.


It turns out the St. Petersburg Times has developed an inventory of 510 campaign promises and is tracking their progress via their PoltiFact “Obameter.”  Not surprisingly, it lists 483 of them as having “no action.”  Maybe a little unfair after two weeks in office, but that’s the news media!


The striking thing, to me, though is that someone has put together such a complete list.  In the Clinton Administration, that list was in the head of George Stephanopoulos.  Now it’s a website!  The National Journal has created such a list as well, called “The Promise Audit,” but their list is half the size of the St. Petersburg Times list (234 promises).


The promise of full transparency led the Obama transition, followed by the White House, to post its own list of commitments.  Called “The Agenda,” it covers 24 topic areas.  It doesn’t offer a progress-tracking function, though.


The potential concern, though, is that none of the three lists easily match.  For example, the White House “civil rights” agenda lists 15 specific commitments, the St. Petersburg site lists 21, and the National Journal lists 11.  Moreover, the three sites don’t use the same categories.  For example, the National Journal has a category titled “Administration,” and the St. Petersburg has a “Government Efficiency” category, but the Obama agenda doesn’t have a parallel category.


But really, how can a leader be effective with so many initiatives pending? I’ve been reading a fascinating book, “Instruction to Deliver,” by Michael Barber.  Barber was UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s version of Obama’s chief performance officer.  He was responsible, in Blair’s second term, for ensuring key improvements were made in the delivery of public services that were part of Blair’s campaign.  The key, he said, was to agree on a small handful of specific, measurable priorities and focus on them.  They initially focused on 14 priorities – important things like reducing mortality from heart disease (not things like 5-day waiting period before signing legislation).  Barber outlines how they developed a strong transparency approach using “league tables” and assessments on the likelihood that programs would deliver on their promises.


The bottom line seems to be to focus on the small, critical few priorities; but first, someone in the White House may want to get a handle on how many campaign commitments were actually made in the first place (and which are still relevant) and take ownership of them during this transition period before someone else defines the agenda and what success should look like!