Quiet grumbling has surfaced among the inside-the-beltway crowdand not just over healthcare reform. People are asking, Where is Obamas big-bang reform of government?

Government reform has been a staple of presidential management for the last 50 years. President Kennedy brought in his whiz kids, led by Robert McNamara. President Johnson mandated a planning-programming-budgeting (PPB) system to link program goals and costs. President Nixon upped the ante with a management-by-objectives budget system, and President Carter trumped him with zero-based budgeting, which promised to force budgeters to explain the extra value that marginal dollars would bring.

Next, President Reagan privatized everything he could and created a special commission led by a private-sector executive to review the entire government and its operations. During the Clinton administration, Vice President Al Gore identified hundreds of recommendations for reinventing government. By day 200 of his administration, President George W. Bush had launched a top-down performance system tied to the budget. Does Team Obama have something on the way?

First Post-Bureaucratic President

Theres no big-bang announcement yet, but a stealth revolution is in the works. President Obama is quietly shaping a strategy to become the first post-bureaucratic president.

Presidents might be chief executives, but they dont really behave much like CEOs. Nevertheless, for more than half a century, presidents have felt obliged to demonstrate to votersand especially to the permanent governmentthat they take the job of running the government seriously. Presidents seem to have worked out of the vending-machine model of government: insert cash (a lot of it), push the button, and wait for services to come out. The goal: Figure out how to make the vending machine work better.

Pressed by angry taxpayers, most presidents have tried to squeeze out more services for the same amount of money. Reagan tried to rewire the vending machine by giving the private sector more management over more of its parts. Clintons reinvention of government was part good cop (trying to smooth governments machinery for federal employees caught in bad systems) and part bad cop (downsizing the machinery itself). Bush torqued down the machine by forcing managers to better explain what they were trying to accomplish and to measure how well they did.

Enter Hurricane Katrina. Team Bush recovered from a remarkable collection of crises, but the blow from which it could never bounce back was FEMAs fumble. October 2005 was the first time that the presidents negative ratings exceeded his positive numbers. It was not just a public relations disaster; it was a profound failure of vending-machine government. The administration inserted the cash and pushed the buttons, but the mechanism jammed.

For Team Obama, ever mindful of history, the lesson is clear. The top-down, process-driven, budget-based reforms of the last 50 years have run out of coins. The vending machine is broken, and more presidential tinkering cannot fix it.

In Search of a New Idea

It is time for a new idea. It will have to be outlandishly huge to get the attention of government workers, who have become used to the escalating promises that have come with the regular rising and setting of the reform sun. However, there isnt a consensus of what big idea ought to drive the next beam of government reform.

Top administration officials also know that they need a new plan. They need it in part to demonstrate their seriousness about government and in part to make sure their owninevitableKatrina doesnt torpedo them as it did Bush. So, theyre hitching up their governance strategy wagon to transparency and working organically from the bottom up. They want to test their ideas before they latch themselves to a loser.

The stimulus is proving the perfect test vehicle. Its moving broadly (so its affecting almost everything in government), and its moving fast (so no one is looking too closely at whats coming). Its a stealth revolution quietly taking shape with very little notice.

But what does this stealth revolution look like?

Virtually Connect with Citizens

The Obama Administration came to Washington as master of the new media. The White House was soon tweeting out its own exclusives. Damon Weaver, an 11-year-old ace reporter from Florida, got an interview with the president. Even though his broadcast news show reaches only 500 students at Canal Point Elementary School, his tweeted interview and YouTube video soon hit the broadcast networks and reached millions.

Obama has sometimes gotten clobbered in turn by the viral media, especially in the storm of opposition to his healthcare reform. But those in the administration are betting that the virtual networking force will be theirseven if theyve banned Twitter from the White House and the Oval Office.

Create Czars to Sidestep Bureaucratic Roadblocks

From Katrina, Obama learned that coordination failures can cripple a president, both administratively and politically. To break the bureaucratic boundaries, the administration has appointed a gaggle of policy czarsthree dozen by one countloosely coordinated by Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

Theres a bank czar to oversee executives pay and a car czar to reorganize the auto industry. There are special envoys for Afghanistan and the Middle East, and czars for energy and the environment, as well as for healthcare and the stimulus package. None of these officials are confirmed by the Senate or answer to Congress. This is part flattening-the-hierarchy, part move-fast/travel-light, part dont-let-Congress-meddle, and part dont-let-the-bureaucracy-slow-you-down. All presidents have used special representatives for particular issues, but this is a revolutionary-in-scale move to maneuver past the permanent bureaucracy.

Herd Cats When Dealing with Congress


From every corner, there has been criticism of Obamas strategy of setting broad principles on big issuesthe stimulus, climate change, healthcare reformand then tossing the debate to Congress to resolve. This strategy has led to a porkfest in the stimulus package, a giveaway of hundreds of billions of dollars of pollution credits in the climate change bill, and wobbly wheels on the healthcare reform wagon.

Although it hasnt been easy to watch, straightforward presidential proposals have become a skeet shoot on Capitol Hill, with specifics tossed up only to be shot down. Congress is good at short-term deals, building broad coalitions by horse trading, and stopping big ideas dead in their tracks.

Obama is willing to accept half a loaf rather than no loaf, because he believes there may be a chance in the future for another trip to the bakery. It appears that Obama wont make that trip if he cant get some policy wins, however. Take what you can get, fix it later, but make sure you get something to sign now for the 2012 campaign later seems to be the administrations strategy. So far, its gotten the stimulus bill enacted and seen movement on climate change and healthcare reform.

Redefine Accountability Through Transparency

Team Obama quickly concluded that it couldnt steer the government through the usual mechanisms. No one would pay attention to more rules, and traditional authority broke down. The budget is the usual presidential ace card, but with Washington printing money so fast that it risked brownouts, the budget was useless.

Instead, the administration has pushed out enormous quantities of information about federal programs and relied on citizens (and interest groups) to digest the data and figure out what it means. The stimulus program is the point of the spear. Want to know where the money is going and how its being used? Go to the Recovery.gov website for a dazzlingand staggeringcollection of information. But thats just part the enormous avalanche of data pouring out of the new administration.

Vivek Kundra, Obamas information czar, brought the strategy from his previous position as Washington, D.C.s chief technology officer. The citys Apps for Democracy contest produced hundreds of new ways to mash up real-time data. The city received several new applications at relatively little cost, citizens received access to data on programs ranging from crime to construction to vacant property, and Harvards Innovations Award named Kundras effort a finalist for democratizing data.

Building virtual links with citizens, sidestepping bureaucracy, herding Congress, and democratizing data; without having launched a big-bang initiative, a stealth revolution has come together in Obamas first nine months.

Wither Transparency?

This stealth revolution is an incredibly high-risk venture. Its a game changer. Two things seem clear. One is that transparency is the next big thing in governanceeven though no one really knows what transparency means. Like so much of the rest of the Obamas frenetic policy juggernaut, theres a shell without much content.

The other is that were post-bureaucratic, with players across many federal agencies, multiple levels of government, public-private-nonprofit sectors, and international boundaries.

Consider the 2008 dog food recall. Melamine was introduced into the canine food chain through a Chinese company, imported by a Canadian company, manufactured in plants in New Jersey and Kansas, and distributed through more than 100 dog food brands throughout the United States. Getting leverage on such complex policy networks, which are proliferating throughout all of government, while at the same time operating through traditional bureaucracies, is a fundamental challenge of 21st century government.

So Obama is conducting a post-bureaucratic, stealth revolutionthrough transparencyto deal with networked policy problems. The administration has the problem defined just right. However, the strategy is not only unproven, its full of risks that could blow up.

The implosion of healthcare reform illustrates the risks of the congressional strategy. They might get some kind of signable bill, but in a policy world where everyone plays and no one leads, the rudder is sitting there for anyone to grab. And while the administration has mastered virtual networking, opponents have flipped the game back on it. The electronic campaigns of the death boards show how easily it is to die by the sword as to live by it. No one owns or steers the new media.

The policy czars give the administration point persons for its policy making. But making the policies work will require bringing in the permanent government, which has been dealt out of the policy flurry. Except when it comes to problems. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the regulatory agency charged with overseeing child safety seats and auto recalls and drunk driving rules, was attacked for not moving the Cash for Clunkers money fast enough, a program about as far from its mission as one can get. Feds everywhere are nervously eyeing the transparency rules embedded in the emerging stimulus reports.

Experienced feds know that eagle-eyed critics will mine the data for horror stories. Glenn Beck has already hijacked Recovery.gov to attack the stimulus for just peeing your money away.

Results-Oriented Problem Solving and Leadership

If the Obama Administration has defined the problem correctly, its going to have a serious problem solving 42it. If the federal government is post-bureaucraticand no agency can control any problem its given to managesolutions cant come through spontaneous combustion produced by dumping information into the Internet.

Hurricane Katrina showed how post-bureaucratic government ought to work. When Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen replaced Michael Brown as coordinator-in-chief, things started to movethrough two lessons. First, government works when problem solving rather than boundary protecting defines who does what. Second, this requires a leader with the instinctand salty language, if necessaryto drive relentlessly toward results.

So far Obamas stealth revolution has the post-bureaucratic vision. However, it needs to learn the Katrina lessonsfastif President Obama is going to avoid having the tough realities of 21st century government eat him up as they did his predecessor.