President Obama Doesn’t Have What Effective Government Management Requires
The perpetual management breakdowns within the Obama administration are a sign that the president is presiding over a broken system. Their persistence shows he’s done nothing to fix it and is proof that our government lacks any direction. Look no further than the president’s own security detail, which allowed a man to scale the gate of what was supposed to be one of the most secure buildings in the world, and simply walk in the front door. Perhaps such a blatant neglect of execution by the Secret Service will get the president’s attention.
Based on my experience as a McKinsey management consultant and Deputy Director of OMB, I published a book over 30 years ago (Washington’s Hidden Tragedy: The Failure to Make Government Work). It discussed the many failures of managing the government and offered solutions. It received some pretty fair reviews, had modest sales, and judging by current practice did little to improve management of the federal government.
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. Obama’s approach, which National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar calls the “Pass-the-Buck Presidency” is to deflect blame to others further down the chain of command, and rely on the short memory of the American public in the hope that someone other than himself will eventually be held responsible. Plausible deniability may help with poll numbers, but is in no way a strategy for effective management.
Effective management also requires the chief executive to accept responsibility for a situation when there is no one else to blame. In a recent interview with 60 Minutes, President Obama blamed the CIA director and intelligence community for failing to anticipate the proliferation of ISIS through out Iraq and Syria.
Just because it is more difficult to hold people accountable in government does not mean that it is impossible. When the appearance of failure is obvious, swift and decisive action is necessary. As a manager, one of the hardest things to do is fire someone, a responsibility the president at times has been reluctant to accept.
There is also tendency to fill top government positions with people who possess a high level of technical experience, but have yet to demonstrate or learn what it takes to fully execute a broad effective strategy for success. Consider the botched rollout of HealthCare.gov. It wasn’t until things went horribly wrong did the administration bring in Jeff Zients, my partner in bringing Major League Baseball to DC, to clean up the mess. There are plenty of individuals that have more knowledge of technology than Jeff, but very few that have his knack for leadership. Had he been involved from day one there’s a chance the launch of the administration’s signature program wouldn’t have been so embarrassing.
Above all else, an effective manager should convey a sense of moral and ethical standards to subordinates at all levels. Repeated attacks by President Obama against conservative non-profits certainly contributed to the targeting of those groups by IRS officials. Whether the White House had any direct knowledge of these actions is irrelevant if you consider how much influence the Office of the President has over all aspects of government and public life. Before President Obama expressed his outrage over the actions taken by the IRS, he should have considered how his words might have been interpreted as a mandate to deny certain groups their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech.
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. Good leadership requires making tough decisions, whether it’s in private industry or a government agency. It’s often hard to know who will be a good leader, but my experience tells me those with a proven track record of executive experience, regardless of what industry they come from, will be able to apply their skills in any setting.
As the president’s record is scrutinized over the remaining two years of his term, voters will come to realize the critical importance of strong leadership and the significance of that quality when they select the next occupant of the Oval Office. Executive leadership is on the top of my list of qualifications for any potential presidential candidate in 2016. It should be on the top of everyone’s list who no longer wishes to succumb to the empty leadership of the past six years.