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
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
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
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
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.
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.