Failure to Communicate

07/02/2012 11:36 am ET | Updated Sep 01, 2012
  • D. Robert Worley Senior Fellow, Johns Hopkins Center for Advanced Governmental Studies

Presidents may be commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, but they do not command the departments and agencies of government, and they certainly don't command the nation. Presidents can only lead, and communication is a key component of leadership. Analogies between commanders and presidents can only go so far, but there are a couple of useful examples to draw from.

General George Patton issued an order to his subordinates saying that decision making was easy and that it should take no more than 5 percent of their time. The rest should be spent ensuring that those decisions were understood and being vigorously carried out.

President Dwight Eisenhower, certainly not a stranger to high military command, replaced Truman's National Security Council system with something more suited to his personal style. Ike's system included two distinct bodies -- the Planning Board and the Operations Coordinating Board. The Planning Board supported policy formulation and presidential decision making. Once the president had decided, the decision was passed down to the departments and agencies for implementation. The decision was also passed to the Operations Coordinating Board that was responsible for continuous monitoring to ensure that the decision was carried out.

President Jack Kennedy thought the Eisenhower NSC was little more than a ponderous paper mill. It was disbanded without replacement. The Bay of Pigs fiasco showed that to be a poor decision. McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy's national security adviser, said, "... I have the strong impression, from my brief experience, that departments and agencies will always be acting just as fast as they can to respond to the President's directives." Eisenhower and Patton, with more than brief experience, knew better.

The recent Supreme Court decision brought the spotlight back to the Affordable Care Act. The Act itself remains unpopular with 50-something percent of the public. At the same time, major components of the Act are quite popular, many with ratings in the 60 and 70 percent range. Most telling is that the majority of American's don't know what's in the Act: "What we have here is failure to communicate."

I'm having another flashback to my college days and some of those introductory classes with 200 students in an auditorium setting. Not a command setting, but certainly a setting designed to communicate. Someone (the actual study escapes me) seeded a lecture with bullet points, some points stated once, some twice... The audience was given an exit quiz before leaving the lecture hall. The exact numbers are beyond my recall, but to get 70 percent of the audience to hear something, it had to be repeated eight or so times. Some of my students think I'm daft for repeating myself so much, but it's by design. Well, some of it is by design. The rest may be attributed to daftness. Repetition is useful.

I recently heard a commentator lament that Ronald Reagan talked up a policy preference while it was debated in Congress, praised the policy when it was passed and signed into law, and continued to talk it up during implementation.

Mr. President, making decisions is the easy part. Getting decisions faithfully implemented is a far different matter.