Recently a friend of mine emailed me a 1970 memo I wrote for then Office of Management and Budget Director George P. Shultz. At the time I was serving as Deputy Under Secretary of Health Education andWelfare and was all of 33 years old. A couple of years later I was named Deputy Director of OMB and had a chance to put some of my thoughts into action, aided by a great team I assembled including Paul O’Neil, Frank Zarb, John Sawhill, and Colin Powell.
Our goal was to put the “M” into OMB and to accomplish this we set out to introduce business practices into the federal government, especially those related to management and new ways to increase efficiency in the federal bureaucracy.
In the memo I outlined priorities for the new OMB, and as a result I came up with what I saw as the major problems in managing the federal government, and offered some initial recommendations.
I’ve written about this topic quite a bit over the years. I published a book (Washington’s Hidden Tragedy: The Failure to Make Government Work). It discussed the many failures of managing the government and offered solutions. I also touched on this issue in a column for the Daily Caller last year, but it’s worth revisiting, as so much of this is still relevant today.
You can read the memo in it’s entirety here, but I’ve outlined some of the major points below.
Lack of Management Expertise in Top Positions
There’s really no question that people in key management positions in the federal government – department officials, agency heads, and program chiefs – often have little to no training or background in management. Unlike the private sector, government positions are often filled with people who posses a high degree of technical expertise, but have yet to prove themselves as effective managers.
Separation of Management from Policy Development
This occurs all too often when policy is developed without consideration as to how it will be implemented (think rollout of healthcare.gov). Having a management strategy in place from the beginning is important to avoid serious mistakes further down the road.
Neglect of Less Visible Tasks
Top officials tend to focus on high profile problems especially during the launch of new initiatives and programs. Everyone wants to look good for political leadership, which places an emphasis on focusing on the hottest political topics at the time. Once attention shifts to a new program or the political mood changes, important management priorities are often neglected.
General Inability to Gauge Results
One of the biggest observations I’ve made over the years is the fact that it’s much more difficult to hold people accountable in government positions, because there is really no reliable metric to grade effectiveness. Simply put, it’s difficult to know whether someone is doing a good job in government or not.
Bureaucracies often spring up as the result of individual pieces of legislation creating a vast system of walled off government programs that serve similar purposes. This can lead to massive redundancies and waste in government. For example, in his 2014 report to Congress, GAO Comptroller Gene Dodaro explained that “it’s impossible to account for how much money is wasted through duplication, in part because the government doesn’t keep track of which programs each agency is responsible for.”
Poor Working Relationships with State and Local Governments
The tension between state and federal governments has increased significantly during the current administration. As Chairman of the Finance Committee at the Republican Governors Association, I regularly hear complaints from our members about overreach and interference from the Federal government.
We face many of the same challenges today that we did in 1970, and there’s no clear cut way to solve all of them. However, since my experience in government and the publication of my book, I’ve been fortunate to hold CEO positions in the private sector as President of Marriott Hotels and of Northwest Airlines. This has given me a good sense of what works, and what doesn’t work when it comes to management. And most importantly, leadership starts at the top, and one of the places to start may be to change the management coming out of the oval office.