Where does the president turn when he has a daunting task that needs to be done? Typically, we think of great leaders who take on huge initiatives. James Webb led the race to the moon. John Koskinen led the Y2K response. Francis Collins led the decoding of the human genome. Thad Allen led the response to the BP Gulf oil spill.
Great leaders are key, but they cannot be successful on their own. People matter, but so do the systems and processes within which they must work.
The White House typically focuses on policy and politics, not implementation. It lacks the institutional mechanisms to manage complex initiatives (the Y2K effort, though led out of the White House, relied on a separate office rather than existing institutions). This work is typically delegated to departments and agencies.
Increasingly, major initiatives reach across agency boundaries, and sometimes across levels of government and sectors of the economy. What can a president do to ensure a great leader is successful? First is finding a seasoned manager with experience in getting things done in government.
Second is ensuring that person or team has the needed support. The kind of support will differ depending on the initiative. George Mason professor Tim Conlan observes that “not all big things are alike.” Unanticipated and time-urgent initiatives, such as responding to a natural catastrophe or a pandemic, require an approach that’s different from the development of a multiyear effort to reach the moon or decode the human genome.
There are commonalities, though, according to a small team of experts preparing briefing materials for national leaders in the post-election period. They have found that responding to big challenges requires a president to operate outside the traditional boundaries of agencies and programs.
He must quickly install a governance and accountability framework agile enough to respond rapidly to sudden, unforeseen circumstances and stable enough to operate within the rule of law. The framework will differ depending on whether the initiative is thrust upon the president, such as a large-scale emergency, or whether it is self-initiated, such as the interstate highway construction project.
Looking at previous large-scale initiatives shows common ingredients to success, such as:
A seasoned senior executive in charge.
A core team of innovative federal employees who are comfortable with change and whose main job is focused on transformation.
Key stakeholders with shared clarity around mission, goals and objectives.
Cross-agency and cross-sector collaboration around common outcomes.
A sense of urgency that promotes rapid resolution of day-to-day issues.
A high level of transparency.
Freedom to innovate and deviate from rules, if necessary.
These elements should be incorporated into the design of a cross-agency effort. Ed DeSeve pointed to these elements as his operating principles when he was charged with executing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Dwight Ink found these elements essential to his success when he oversaw the government’s response to the 1964 Good Friday Alaska Earthquake. John Koskinen did as he led the government’s response to the Y2K computer bug.
The president has new statutory authority to develop cross-agency governance frameworks to pursue large-scale initiatives under the 2010 amendments to the Government Performance and Results Act. That authority has been used to develop a set of interim national goals and track their progress, but the next administration could use this authority more boldly and embrace larger-scale initiatives.
Beginning in January, the president should ensure that he has have such capabilities in place so he can use them to advance his agenda. Memos being developed by the National Academy of Public Administration team will outline actions the president and his staff should take to be prepared, based on past experience.
John Kamensky is a senior fellow with the IBM Center for The Business of Government. He is also a National Academy of Public Administration fellow and is contributing to its “Memos to National Leaders” project with Dwight Ink, Timothy Conlan and Harry Lambright.