With Bush victory, new phase of reform effort seen

By Amelia Gruber

Democratic presidential contender John Kerry conceded the election to George W. Bush Wednesday, giving the first "MBA president" another four years to build on an aggressive government reform agenda.

In his first term, Bush established a strong foundation for "correcting years of chronic mismanagement and outdated ways of doing business," said Jonathan Breul, a senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government.

Agencies made significant progress implementing a set of five governmentwide management goals outlined by the administration, he said, but have yet to achieve "breakthrough performance" in most areas.

The Bush administration must now harness modest management improvements and help agencies translate them into quantum leaps in service delivery and program performance, Breul said. The administration should not drastically change the five main government reform goals, he recommended.

"There's no harm in modifying them a little," Breul said. But a major overhaul would simply confuse matters and give agency managers an excuse to let up on reform efforts, he said.

Carl DeMaio, president of the Performance Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based think tank, agreed, adding that Bush should spend his second term "building on progress made." The administration should also continue to support legislation encouraging sound management, he said.

But as Bush continues to advance his management agenda, he will face "several big and new challenges," said Donald Kettl, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Fels Institute of Government. He'll need to fine-tune his reform goals and then attempt to institutionalize them, Kettl said.

The president also has his work cut out in ensuring that one of his primary management reform projects - the formation of the Homeland Security Department - is deemed a success, Kettl noted. "It's been a rough and rugged road since its creation, and there is still a huge amount of work to be done," he said, adding that, should Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge leave his post, Bush will need to find a strong replacement.

Bush first shared his vision for management reform during his 2000 campaign, when he promised a government that would be "citizen-centered, results-oriented and, wherever possible, market-based." Upon taking office, he translated those principles into five governmentwide reform initiatives, outlined in the President's Management Agenda, and asked agencies to work toward concrete goals in each area.

The agenda items - personnel reform, opening federal jobs to private sector competition, improving financial management, expanding electronic government and linking budget decisions to program performance - were not groundbreaking. But Bush's agenda brought unprecedented attention to a set of clear, pragmatic management reforms, according to supporters.

"One of the virtues of this agenda is that it's focused on a limited number of items," Breul said.

Officials at the Office of Management and Budget also designed a simple, traffic-light-style score card to rate agencies' progress and accomplishments in all five areas on a quarterly basis. Federal managers have said they find the score card useful because the grading standards clearly indicate the administration's expectations in each area, and the ratings foster a spirit of friendly competition among agencies.

But by outlining such specific management goals, Bush also has opened his administration to sharp criticism. For instance, federal employee unions see competitive sourcing, a management agenda initiative forcing civil servants to compete for their jobs against contractors, as a thinly veiled attempt to privatize government work.

During the next four years, the Bush administration will need to concentrate on selling the five management agenda items as a package of interconnected initiatives, Breul said. "They were designed as a coherent set," he said. "So frankly, agencies need to work on putting them together."

For instance, agencies should not embark on competitive sourcing before analyzing workforce trends and arriving at a broader human capital plan, Breul said. The competitive sourcing initiative might prove less intimidating to federal workers if agencies "explicitly deal with the [possibility] of employee [displacement] at the front end and anticipate the need for soft landings," he said.

Competitive sourcing should continue during the next four years, DeMaio said, but should be seen "more in the vein of a workforce management and human capital tool." The administration should seek to "broaden the concept to competitive thinking," and agency managers should view the initiative as a means of retaining talent, but in some cases shifting employees to new positions.

DeMaio expects budget pressures also will come more into play during Bush's second term, and resources will be shifted to programs that have a proven record of results. Program evaluations performed by the administration in the past four years set a baseline for future assessments, he said, and should help in "informed decision making" when budgets get tighter.

Kettl said Bush still needs to get lawmakers on board with his budget-performance integration initiative. "It's one thing to proclaim the importance of performance measurement," he said. "It's quite another to get Congress to buy into it, and unless that happens, he won't succeed in getting his approach to take root."

Flagging energy levels often plague presidents elected to second terms, said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, during a panel discussion at the American Enterprise Institute last month. But DeMaio believes the management agenda has plenty of momentum.

"Success begets success," DeMaio said. Progress has been clear and the management agenda framework is already set, he said. As agency managers realize the agenda is here to stay and see more and more improved programs and other success stories, they'll remain focused on reform efforts, he predicted.

"The fatigue factor is one to worry about," Breul said. "But I'm impressed at how the energy behind this effort has picked up and shifted to the agencies. There are some real energized folks out there."