Obama’s Stealth Management Revolution

“Where is Obama’s big-bang reform of government?” laments an insightful article by University of Maryland public administration dean, Donald Kettl, in a forum on President Obama’s management initiatives in the current issue of The Public Manager.  He says that President Obama is quietly reshaping the way government works and dubs it a “stealth revolution.”

Kettl calls Obama the “first post-bureaucratic president.”  Kettl says the hierarchical approach to government, which he calls the “vending machine” (insert cash, push a button, and out comes a service), failed profoundly with Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  He has concluded “The vending machine is broken, and more presidential tinkering cannot fix it.”  He says the Obama administration is “hitching up their governance strategy to transparency and working organically from the bottom.”  A good example is the recently-released Fiscal Year 2011 management initiatives in the budget that are built on agency-generated high priority goals and commits to creating governmentwide problem-solving networks. 

Kettl offers several observations in his article:

  • The Obama Administration will use Web 2.0 technology to virtually connect with citizens.
  • It will use “czars” to sidestep bureaucratic roadblocks.  He notes this approach has been used selectively in the past but that “this is a revolutionary-in-scale move to maneuver past the permanent bureaucracy.”
  • It will “herd cats when dealing with Congress” in that the Administration is willing to let Congress take the lead in developing significant legislation.
  • And that it will redefine accountability through the use of greater transparency.

In relation to this final point, Kettl says “Team Obama quickly concluded that it couldn’t steer the government through the usual mechanisms.  No one would pay attention to more rules, and traditional authority broke down.” This happened, in part, because the budget was no longer a control mechanism since so much money was being shoveled out via the Recovery Act and the various bailout programs.

He concludes that “This stealth revolution is an incredibly high-risk venture . . . .“If the federal government is post-bureaucratic – and no agency can control any program it’s given to manage – solutions can’t come through spontaneous combustion produced by dumping information into the Internet.”  However, he says there is a glimmer of hope offered by the post-Katrina recovery effort.  “When Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen replaced Michael Brown as coordinator-in-chief, things started to move. . . “  Government, in this case, began to work when it focused on problem-solving, rather than boundary-protecting, and when there is a leader driving relentlessly toward results.


2 thoughts on “Obama’s Stealth Management Revolution

  1. John,
    One way the government can improve services, with little cost, is to improve the government’s understanding of the people it affects. This came up in discussions of EPA’s Second Compliance Assistance Advisor Committee, CAAC (a Federal Advisory Committee), on which I served in 2002 to 2004 as a private citizen. The CAAC recommended, among other things, that EPA build better understanding of the regulated community among the people who write and enforce regulations. The value of putting regulators “in the shoes of small business” was not and is not limited to EPA.
    Of course, the CAAC focused on how to improve compliance assistance, but an expanded version of their idea would put government policy makers and implementers in the shoes of the communities they affect. All too often policies and procedures are developed by smart, knowledgeable people who have little if any experience of the reality facing the people they regulate, influence, help, or give benefits to. It should be possible create some exercises that would open eyes to the difficulty of finding out what rules apply to me, or what benefits I am eligible for, or what the Government advises given my situation. That should prompt some improvement in the writing and communicating of policies, and I hope in their implementation.

    1. Hi Ed – There are lots of other ways of improving government’s understanding of how its programs affect people. The “Conversations with America” initiative run by the National Partnership for Reinventing Government asked each agency and bureau head to go out into the field and talk with both their employees as well as those receiving services from those agencies — and regulatory agency heads found they learned the most! Today, with the on-line dialogues possible, and the Obama Adminstration experimenting with new ways to engage citizens, there could be a resurgence in two-way understanding.

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