How Would Obama Manage the Federal Bureaucracy?

An earlier post offered a first glimpse into federal government management under a McCain administration. Now let’s turn to Barack Obama. Like McCain, today’s Government Executive offers an article previewing an Obama administration’s reform approach. This article goes into less detail than their McCain piece, but I think it’s fair to say that “Reinventing Government 2.0” would be the centerpiece, essentially an updated version of the Clinton administration’s National Performance Review initiative led by then-Vice President Al Gore:

Obama pledged to “go through the federal budget, line by line, eliminating programs that no longer work and making the ones we do need work better and cost less — because we cannot meet 21st century challenges with a 20th century bureaucracy.” [. . . ] David Osborne, one of the architects of the National Performance Review, interpreted Obama’s [Denver acceptance speech] words as an acknowledgment that it was time to return to the “reinventing government” paradigm of the Clinton years. “I think it’s a clear signal that he recognizes that given the fiscal realities, he’s going to need to do Reinventing Government 2.0,” said Osborne, who now serves as a senior partner for the Public Strategies Group consulting firm. “It’s just one thing added to his agenda. And it’s been conspicuous by its absence in the past.” [. . .] “People have been criticizing him for not getting specific,” Osborne said. “What he said is, ‘I am going to tell you specifically what I am going to do,’ and he went through about 20 things. And he put reinventing government on that list.” John Kamensky, a senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government, said Obama’s mention of government reform shows the candidate is taking the issue seriously. “For him to announce this in his acceptance speech puts down an important marker,” Kamensky said. “This was not done by Clinton or Gore or in Bush’s acceptance speech. So, symbolically, for him to put it in his acceptance speech puts it at a much higher level than I’ve seen in the past 15 to 20 years.”

A few thoughts on this: 1) At this point, it’s clear that both major party candidates are seriously talking about reform and more effective, efficient delivery of government services. It’s pure symbolism until it’s accomplished, but the fact that both are on the same general page is a good sign that the fiscal unsustainability of our current track has become so obvious that not even fans of big government can avoid it. In a very general sense, both candidates are agreeing that government-as-usual is failing, and the fiscal path we’re on is inherently unsustainable. 2) Things like the National Performance Review are useful for conveying to the average Joe that we should never stand for auto-pilot government. Shining the spotlight and watching the roaches scurry can dig up things like the $500 toilet seat Gore displayed on late night talk shows. Not exactly a shining example of government excess, but it did the trick in conveying to Americans that they should always have a certain skepticism of government spending. 3) While I support their intent, recent “one-off” reviews like the National Performance Review and California’s Performance Review haven’t produced much in terms of tangible outcomes. In California’s case, a lot of work and great ideas went absolutely nowhere and are gathering dust on the shelf. I think the NPR was probably a bit more successful, but not a whole lot. With these types of reviews, the problem ends up being that you get a lot of great recommendations for which further action is entirely discretionary. Hence, politics usually chokes the best ideas and keeps them from ever moving to implementation. 4) Bush’s President’s Management Agenda went in a different direction that offers more promise of achieving intended outcomes. He didn’t try to pull off an NPR-style “big look” initiative–instead he opted to try and put systems in place within the government apparatus itself (PART, competitive sourcing, e-gov, etc.) to drive continual efficiency improvements and better spending decisions. It’s an internal focus, not an external one. In the end, I think both are quite complimentary and would produce a synergistic effect if combined. But when treated separately, I see the system approach as bearing more fruit. At least that’s what’s been borne out in experience, in my view. To be fair, we still haven’t seen a detailed agenda from either candidate on this front, so it’s risky to speculate too much at this point about what specific strategies each would employ. 5) Like McCain, my fear with Obama is a dismantling of Bush’s competitive sourcing program. Under Bush, it’s produced over $7 billion in savings, and taxpayers received a return of approximately $30 for every dollar spent on competitions thus far (regardless of whether the public or private team win). With these kinds of results, both candidates should be tripping over themselves to embrace this sort of managed competition, not kowtow to Congressional Dems bent on killing it altogether. 6) Obama has some solid advisers on his team, judging by the article. I’m not sure who’s advising McCain on the tax & fiscal side, but I’d wager that they’re also pretty sharp. I’d love to see a race to the top for who can come up with the best management/reform approach. Reason’s Annual Privatization Report 2008 Reason’s Privatization Research and Commentary

Leonard Gilroy is Senior Managing Director of the Pension Integrity Project at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets. The Pension Integrity Project assists policymakers and other stakeholders in designing, analyzing and implementing public sector pension reforms.