Obama As Executive-In-Chief

This was originally published as an exclusive commentary for Politico.

President Barack Obama has worn many hats these last two years -- including commander in chief, presiding over two wars; and legislator in chief, in his many battles with Congress.

As he regroups after the mid-terms for a likely altered political landscape, Obama should now embrace the role of executive in chief. He needs to don the hat of chief executive of a federal workforce of 2.1 million people, placing new emphasis on improving the effectiveness of federal programs.

Most presidents and their political appointees would certainly prefer to focus on policy, not operations. Generally, there is no payoff for worrying about management details, and no penalty for ignoring them.

But ask President George W. Bush about the effect of having an incompetent Federal Emergency Management Agency during Hurricane Katrina, or lax operations at the Securities and Exchange Commission, which contributed to the economic meltdown. Obama only has to reflect on the disastrous Gulf oil spill and the poor management of the Minerals Management Service.

Such missteps, and there have been many over the years -- from Medicare fraud to lapses in food and drug safety oversight -- are one reason people are so skeptical about government, and why that skepticism undermines Washington's ability to solve many problems. Recent polls show that the majority of Americans want government to deal with a wide range of pressing issues -- but do not have faith in its competence to get things right.

Obama signaled last month that he understands the importance of well-managed government, "When government does not work like it should," Obama wrote in a memo to federal career executives, "it has a real effect on people's lives -- on small business owners who need loans, on young people who want to go to college, on men and women in our Armed Forces who need the best resources when in uniform and deserve the benefits they have earned after they have left."

The Office of Management and Budget, led by chief performance officer Jeffrey Zients, has been working to establish agency performance goals, increase accountability and improve government operations. Despite these laudable efforts, there is little sense that these are administration priorities, or that the president is providing the kind of leadership required in this area. His initiatives have not been communicated clearly to the public or the civil service.

So what should the president do?

In a very public way, Obama should hold himself, his Cabinet and other agency leaders accountable for a defined set of performance goals. They must measure the outcomes and report regularly on the progress - or lack of it.

A former big-city mayor used to hold impromptu meetings with agency heads that he dubbed "your job is on the line" meetings. These discussions educated the mayor on progress being made and signaled to the agency heads that the chief executive was paying attention.

Innovative ideas that show real potential or progress deserve to be recognized, and employees should be expected to take the initiative. Stale thinking behind poorly run programs should not be tolerated, and inefficient projects should be revamped, given new leadership or, if needed, scrapped.

As Obama's first round of political appointees heads for the exits, the president should name seasoned managers with proven track records of achieving results. Subject matter expertise is no longer good enough to qualify for a senior-level management position.

The president should also address Senior Executive Service members, the government's top career managers, to emphasize that they are a central part of the team. It is not enough to engage just the White House staff and political appointees.

The president must be the leader of the entire government and accountable for making sure that it all works. Without the president's personal commitment, our government's ability to meet the needs of the American people is likely to fall short.

That would only perpetuate the public's growing anger and unease.

Max Stier is president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.