8 Steps Barack Obama Can Take for a More Effective Government

Jonathan D. Breul suggests 8 ways to improve government efficiency.

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President-elect Barack Obama has made a number of pledges regarding making government more effective.

He promised to designate a Chief Performance Officer, who would report to the president and, along with a SWAT team of highly trained government professionals, would lead a line-by-line review of the budget, lead governmentwide and agency-by-agency performance target setting and tracking, and conduct turnarounds of failing programs.

Obama also made a raft of other promises relating to improving government effectiveness: cutting wasteful spending, fixing government contracting, implementing consequences for success and failure, moving workers from bloated bureaucracies to the front lines, eliminating wasteful redundancy, streamlining government procurement, protecting whistle-blowers, increasing the use of technology, and slashing earmarks. And he said he will use technology and lessons from the private sector to improve efficiency across every level of government—because we cannot meet 21st-century challenges with a 20th-century bureaucracy.

Here are eight steps Obama should take to drive higher performance within the government.

1. Start early. The right time to devise and implement a president's responses to government management and performance challenges is at the start of the administration, at the same time he is defining his legislative, budget, and policy strategies. While many of the president's appointees will not yet be confirmed, management and performance cannot wait. How soon the administration begins its management initiatives will likely determine how successful the initiatives will be. President Clinton announced the formation of the National Performance Review in March 1993 and released its report in September 1993; work began on President Bush's agenda in March 2001 and the president released his President's Management Agenda in August 2001.

2. Establish an overarching set of principles and values. A clear agenda is needed to build and sustain the support needed to further a president's program and agenda. It is incumbent on a president and his immediate White House team to articulate the direction they want to take. Presidents Clinton and Bush each articulated a brief set of principles and effectively communicated them to both political and career employees throughout government.

3. Secure and maintain top-level support throughout the White House and within the Office of Management and Budget. Without such strong leadership at the highest levels, management agendas will have limited impact. Indeed, a management initiative may well be counterproductive in the absence of support and unequivocal commitment at the level of senior White House officials and cabinet officers. President Clinton asked Vice President Al Gore to lead his effort. He maintained "hands-on" involvement throughout the administration. President Bush, the first "M.B.A. president," took an active role in pushing his management agenda and is reported to have discussed department and agency scorecards with cabinet members.

4. Appoint leaders who "get it." No attempt to achieve change and improve results will succeed without leaders at the top who are personally committed to change and who understand what is required in order to improve operating performance. That means picking people who care and know how to undertake change in a disciplined, systematic, and sustained way. They should have previous, successful experience leading, or helping lead, a change effort in a large public or private organization. The Bush administration was particularly noted for its CEO style of management with clear lines of responsibility and accountability assigned for particular tasks.

5. Link actions to improvements in mission and operating performance. Leaders must understand the need and importance of using the president's management reform agenda to improve the operating performance of their department or agency against its mission. Management is a tool to make organizations capable of producing results. Change and innovation will be needed to create a different government capable of producing even greater results, indeed, quantum increases that the public will notice. In some cases, this will entail radically rethinking operations and striving for step-by-step changes in performance.