A president's White House staff typically works with agencies to develop policy initiatives and getting them adopted. But once a policy is adopted, the lead for implementation is usually delegated to an operating agency.

This hierarchical model historically has been effective and will continue to work for targeted policy initiatives in areas where a single agency is clearly the exclusive agent for action, such as the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act by the Department of Education. However, success on really large presidential priorities—climate change, healthcare reform, implementation of the Recovery Act—increasingly has depended on extensive cross-agency and even cross-sectoral efforts.

Beyond the policy stage, presidents engage in three types of large-scale initiatives that are not delegated to a single agency for implementation:

  1. Time-urgent efforts outside the control of any single agency, such as the response to the 1964 Alaskan earthquake, to the Y2K computer bug, to 9/11, and to implementation of the Recovery Act
  2. Presidential initiatives that are cross-agency, not time-urgent, and have moved to the implementation phase, such as the National Performance Review, the Bush faith-based initiative, and the cross-agency priority goals in the Obama administration
  3. Long-term "big science" efforts, such as the Apollo moon mission, the decoding of the human genome, and the international space station.

Responding to Large-Scale, Time-Urgent Initiatives

Over the past 50 years, presidents have faced the demands of acting upon large-scale, time-urgent initiatives. The key ingredients of success seem to be the individual selected to run the effort, and the operational structure he or she must operate within. Following are two examples of successful initiatives:

  • Recovering from the 1964 Alaskan Earthquake. In 1964, the second most severe earthquake ever recorded devastated Alaska. The surface shifted both vertically and horizontally over 55,000 square miles, which made rebuilding the infrastructure above and below ground very challenging. Plus, the short Alaskan construction season made the speed of recovery urgent. President Lyndon Johnson designated career executive Dwight Ink to lead the recovery effort within the policies established by a cabinet-level commission. Working from the White House, he involved every significant federal agency.
  • Implementation of the Recovery Act. The 2009 Recovery and Reinvestment Act involved the allocation of roughly $800 billion—roughly equal to the size of the prior year's domestic spending. The president designated Ed DeSeve, an experienced federal manager, to lead the effort. He was given a small staff and an office in the White House to organize a series of "managed networks" of stakeholders. These interagency, and intergovernmental, networks shared best practices, resolved misunderstandings, and created trust among a wide range of stakeholders.


Each of these undertakings was regarded by many as an impossible challenge. The leaders of each issue faced unprecedented levels of urgency, yet had no road map to follow. Their success involved some common key elements that could be applied in similar large-scale administratively-initiated efforts. The elements that should be incorporated would be to:

  • Place a respected, seasoned senior executive in charge, whether career or political.
  • Require a high degree of transparency in operations to ensure political and popular support.
  • Strive for structural simplicity. In each previous case, the leaders chose to create a small coordination office of only three to five staff members to support them, and relied heavily on "managed networks" of agencies working across boundaries to deliver results.
  • Streamline administrative processes. These leaders bypassed existing processes, in a highly transparent way, to ensure that the deviations were seen as appropriate for the circumstances.
  • Ensure the leaders of these initiatives are granted freedom to innovate and be free as possible from existing administrative rules. The initiative leader has to carefully select staff to support the effort who are willing to assume appropriate risks in exchange for results.
  • Understand that these elements are interdependent. The combination of transparency, innovation, quality staff, a drive for closure, and a focus on results over process are interrelated.

Undertaking Large-Scale Initiatives That Are Not Time-Urgent

Increasingly, presidents launch initiatives that reach across agency boundaries, sometimes levels of government, and even international partners. These initiatives typically span the course of an administration and are often terminated by the new, incoming president. They also typically are not separately authorized or funded by Congress.

  • The National Performance Review. Weeks after taking office in 1993, President Bill Clinton launched a review of government operations and placed Vice President Al Gore in charge of delivering a set of recommendations to him in six months on what needed to be done to make the government "work better and cost less." Dubbed "reinventing government," the effort extended beyond the development of the recommendations to their implementation through 2000. It was led by a political appointee, Elaine Kamarck, with career counterpart Bob Stone, from the Department of Defense.

    An ongoing staff, essentially an interagency working group, was comprised of 40–80 rotating career staff from agencies working on the implementation of various initiatives ranging from increasing the use of plain language in writing government communications to improving customer services and employee engagement in agencies. Each agency created its own reinvention offices and developed its own initiatives. The White House office issued reports annually on the progress of the implementation of its recommendations and initiatives. The Bush administration abolished the effort when it took office.
  • The Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Shortly after taking office in 2001, President George W. Bush created a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to expand the capacity of religious and not-for-profit organizations to deliver federally funded social services. A small White House-based staff created a network of leaders of these initiatives in 11 major federal agencies, each of which created a "center for faith-based and community initiatives."

    The White House staff also successfully encouraged the creation of similar offices by each state governor. In addition, the staff organized White House conferences and regional conferences to promote these initiatives. They also systematically identified existing barriers to participation by such organizations. This led to a series of executive directives to reduce or eliminate these barriers. The office was retained, but renamed, after President Obama took office, and its focus was redefined.


Based on observations of how these types of initiatives were implemented, the following elements seem to contribute to their success and should be employed by the president if he were to engage in the implementation stage of large-scale initiatives in his presidency that are not widely seen as time-urgent:

  • Pair a political head with a career deputy to offer "reach" into agencies involved in implementation
  • Replicate the function or initiative within agencies (and states, where appropriate) to provide greater reach and ongoing commitment within agencies
  • Measure and report progress on a regular basis
  • Rely on agency-provided staff on temporary assignment
  • Rely on shared agency funding, either direct or in-kind.

Undertaking Large-Scale Technology or Scientific Initiatives

Big science initiatives require long-term consensus by key stakeholders, stable funding, and a strong leadership cadre within an agency setting.

There tend to be three phases that are more typical of project management techniques: initiation, development, and operations. Among those that fit this model are Apollo and the Human Genome Project.

  • The Apollo moon project. Apollo's goal was to place a man on the moon and bring him back safely within the decade. Apollo began in 1961 and reached the moon in 1969. It was billed publicly as a "race to get to the moon before the Russians." The key leader was James Webb, the administrator of NASA during much of the duration of the Apollo project. Apollo involved a vast national team embracing government, industry, and universities—400,000 scientists, engineers, and others.

    It was a national project, with a presidential mandate, run top-down by a strong and competent agency, NASA, which had sufficient funding to do the work.
  • Decoding the human genome. The Genome Project began in 1986 and achieved its goal in 2002. Genome Project's goal was to sequence the more than 3 billion letters of the human genetic code. Genome was an inter-agency and international project. The Department of Energy (DOE) almost stealthily began the project in 1986 and then became the junior partner in 1990 when the National Institutes of Health (NIH) took it over. NIH was lead agency in the lead country managing the project.

    A significant international partner was a wealthy British foundation. Scientists in six countries were engaged. Management was a mix of bottom-up and top-down strategy. Over time, it became more top-down, and more concentrated in a handful of key centers performing the work.
    Genome had the most famous biologist in the world as its administrative leader, James Watson, Nobel Prize winner and co-discoverer of the double helical structure of DNA. He helped move the project from DOE to NIH, and then took command on its management. He was followed by Francis Collins, less charismatic but steadier and a more consensual manager. These individuals were technical as well as administrative leaders.


Based on our observations of several long-term big science initiatives that were presidential priorities, several common success factors should be incorporated if a president chooses to successfully pursue a big science initiative that will likely last beyond his term in office:

  • Set clear technical goals, define costs, and set deadlines. If these are not clear, it is hard to gain the collaboration of the myriad stakeholders that need to be involved.
  • Select a leader who has both political skills as well as the technical competence to have the credibility with and confidence of the scientists and engineers involved in the project.
  • Designate a single agency as the lead, even if the project requires wide collaboration among a range of stakeholders.
  • Develop bipartisan political support in Congress to support the president's initiative.
  • Encourage the project leader to use a mix of competition and cooperation to create a sense of urgency over time. Each of these projects uses different techniques, but they all involve some dimensions of competition and cooperation.

Moving Forward

The cases discussed in this article were often formulated as ad hoc responses to a given situation. In the future, the president will likely face the need to develop a large-scale initiative sometime during his administration.

Given this, the president should deliberately develop in advance the capacity needed to ensure its success. Leadership is the most important factor. Therefore he should:

  • Identify a cadre of seasoned executives. The president should designate a point person with political authority, such as the deputy director for management, a deputy White House chief of staff, or the director of the Office of Administration, to help guide the implementation of any large initiative once a particular policy has been adopted that requires action by multiple agencies or levels of government. Having such a contingent capacity in place will make it easier to take action and to ensure the elements of success identified from past efforts can be put into action.

    This person should develop a list of highly-regarded individuals, from among the existing cadre of career senior executives, with experience in leading large-scale initiatives that reach across agency boundaries. This list should have between 50 and 100 people from across the government in different policy arenas.
  • Develop a contingent "network governance" framework. Seasoned and experienced leaders cannot operate alone. Experience shows that they operate best in the context of an effective governing approach, which either evolves before an initiative is undertaken or is put in place once a leader has been designated.

    Because a president will likely undertake a large-scale initiative during his term, he should put in place, early in his administration, a framework for implementing any such initiative. The Government Performance and Results Act Modernization Act of 2010 offers the statutory basis for doing this in a way that involves Congress and promotes accountability for results. The act requires the president to identify a handful of cross-agency priority goals for implementation by February 2014.