First thoughts on the new President's Management Agenda

Steve Kelman worries that politics may be be too prominent in the Biden administration's blueprint for management reform.

By Orhan Cam shutterstock photo ID: 545314126

The Biden administration just issued a President’s Management Agenda (PMA).

Governmentwide attention to management improvement got a real start during the Clinton-Gore administration’s reinventing government effort. The theme was improving government performance, a government that “works better and costs less” – as opposed to reducing “waste, fraud, and abuse,” the management mantra of earlier administrations. Clinton-Gore, based on the Government Performance and Results Act passed at the beginning of that administration, focused on developing performance goals and using them as a management tool for performance improvement.

Contrary to earlier experience where each new administration abandoned the management initiatives of their predecessor and introduced their own flavor du jour, attention to performance – miraculously, I am inclined to say -- survived the transition to George W. Bush (the first to use the phrase ”president’s management agenda”) and then to Obama, Trump and now Biden.

The Obama Administration talked about “Driving federal performance” organized around agenda cross-agency and agency priority goals. The “site informs the public on the performance improvement of major Federal agencies to drive progress on goals and objectives”: “A goal is a simple but powerful way to motivate people and communicate priorities. …The Federal Government operates more effectively when agency leaders, at all levels of the organization, starting at the top, set clear measurable goals aligned to achieving better outcomes.”

There are many features of the Biden PMA that I like. It includes the emphasis on improving customer service that has been a feature of earlier efforts. I like the endorsement of evidence-based policymaking. I like the fact that, for the first time, the report is signed individually by the members of the President’s Management Council – the organization of deputy secretaries– and that they make a commitment to devote personal time to implementing the PMA in their agencies. And I like the plan to set up communities of practice of people at the agencies working on the specific initiatives of the PMA. I also like the recurring discussions of managing across agencies.

However, the Biden PMA is in some ways a departure from past ones – and not necessarily for the better. While earlier PMAs were organized around the ideas of performance and results, that theme, though not absent here, is not nearly as central to the Biden PMA. The very first heading of the Bush PMA was “Improving Government Performance.” The Bush PMA wrote that “agencies will be expected to identify high quality outcome measures, accurately monitor the performance of programs, and begin integrating this presentation with associated cost.” The Obama Administration adopted priority performance goals for the first time. Trump’s PMA called on agencies to “deliver mission outcomes, provide excellent service, and effectively steward taxpayer dollars.” The Trump Administration PMA was mostly a list of specific performance goals and measures for each. In Biden’s PMA, the only discussion of performance goals and metrics appears in one sentence at the end of the document.

The Biden PMA lists three priorities. The first is “strengthening and empowering the federal workforce.” This is an admirable goal and, as readers of this blog know, I bow to nobody in my admiration for federal public servants. Nonetheless, listing this as the first goal of a management agenda strikes me as putting the cart before the horse. The cart should be performance. The workforce who deserves to be treated with respect and support. But we don’t want to land in a situation where government is run for the benefit of employees rather than the public. And there is no call in Biden PMA to the federal workforce, more fully supported, to double down and improve its performance.

This suspicion was deepened when I counted that the word “union” (or “employee representatives”) was mentioned five times in the report, one time more often than the word “results” was. The report writes, “Being a model employer also includes evolving our workplaces and work practices to reflect the needs of our workforce today and tomorrow, including by ensuring that Federal employees have a voice in their workplaces through their unions.”

I am in no way suggesting that a Democratic administration bash employee unions, but does this deserve such a prominent place in a PMA?

The frequent mention of employee unions raises the other big problem I have with the Biden PMA: Its inclusion of highly controversial and partisan issues. Attitudes toward unions have been a highly controversial issue for decades. By contrast, management reform efforts have survived several administrations – most notably George W. Bush, when it could have died because of an association with Clinton, and even Trump, who hardly cared about agency performance – by staying rather non-partisan. The performance goals of all administrations except Bush were non-ideological, good-government goals. (Two of Bush’s goals, competitive sourcing and, to a lesser extent “budget and performance integration” -- AKA cutting programs that “don’t work” – were more-partisan exceptions, and led to a discontinuity of management improvement efforts between Bush and Obama that were the largest since the 90’s.)

A second highly controversial issue in the Biden PMA is “equity,” a hot-button issue that to many evokes political correctness and a cancel culture. (This is not the association I myself make, but it is a fact of life.) As far as I could see, the word “equity” or “equitable” did not appear even once in any earlier PMA. In Biden’s it appears 15 times.

When talking about customer service, the report writes that the goal should be to “improve the experience of those Government serves… especially those communities that have been historically underserved by Government.” If the statement had limited itself to expressing the view that in improving management, we should strive to include the voices of historically underrepresented groups, I would not have objected. But the PMA diminishes an uncontroversial, undiluted statement about the importance of customer service by attaching it to it a view about American history to which many would object.

Speaking for myself (and I am a Democrat), I am sympathetic both to working with employee unions and to the call for a more equitable society. But I also recognize that those with different political views may disagree.

We have had a good thing going since the 1990s with management reform efforts in government. Let’s not endanger that good thing. Democrats, probably more than many Republicans, care about a government that performs well, because we care about government. The last thing Democrats should want is to make the idea of good government a subject of controversy.