The Man Who Put the 'M' in OMB

Roy Ash, former director of the Office of Management and Budget, is gone, but his legacy is a profound change in the way we manage our governments.
by | January 18, 2012

I work for the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard's Kennedy School. Roy L. Ash, who died last month, stood for the best values of civic engagement, and his professional contributions to public management warrant not only accolades but also reflection. His insistence on top-level executive commitment to management change remains relevant to mayors, governors and other innovators at all levels of government.

Ash, a co-founder of Litton Industries, served under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford as director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) -- an office that might never have existed were it not for Ash's efforts.

In 1969, he served as chair of the Presidential Advisory Council on Executive Organization, which became known as the Ash Commission. In a memo to President Nixon that year, Ash wrote that among those who had studied presidential management, regardless of ideology or party, there was "virtual unanimity that organizational improvement of the Executive Office of the President is needed."

Roy L. Ash  
Roy L. Ash in the 1970s

Ash commented at the time that he "wanted to bring in a concept that no matter how awesome its size, government can be made more effective by using management techniques." The Ash Commission crafted the plan that eventually elevated the old Bureau of the Budget to the powerful White House institution that OMB has become.

Predictably, Cabinet secretaries chafed at the new top-level controls and the pressure they brought, and over the years, depending on the administration, the "M" in OMB sometimes has been eclipsed by its budget functions. But the direct linking of management and spending decisions in executive offices in governments across the country is Ash's legacy, one that public officials who came after him have built upon.

For instance, when Mitch Daniels, who had served as director of OMB under President George W. Bush, became governor of Indiana, he created within his state's OMB a Government Efficiency Division to develop performance-measurement systems and identify and coordinate opportunities for efficiency. Daniels and his talented efficiency director, Cris Johnson, found that more than half of Indiana's programs didn't really measure performance and that layers of managers obscured responsibility. Similarly, when I became mayor of Indianapolis, I created an enterprise development office staffed by a few very committed lawyers, MBAs and accountants. Other cities have worked to build this capacity around their performance-tracking "stat" programs managed out of their executive suites.

Let's look at some of the reasons that Roy Ash's vision of a strong executive management office still makes so much sense. To begin with, no matter how strong the cabinet secretary or department director, his or her data comes almost exclusively from within the department, and performance data often is presented by subordinates in the most favorable light. I can remember many times when the reports from the city's agency heads seemed convincing until the enterprise director, a very insightful young lawyer named Skip Stitt, would speak up politely, asking pointed questions that made me realize that there were many more options and much more data that I needed to consider.

These discussions need not be confrontational or even unpleasant, but an office with ultimate responsibility to the top elected official for innovation and performance management is a critical necessity. Analytics can provide the best insights when a leader has access to data from multiple sources; when innovation is championed from the top, information can be gathered and analyzed from multiple locations, not just those inside the agency vertical. Additionally, when a radically better way to deliver a service is identified, the ownership of that concept needs to be driven from a place not responsible for the existing delivery method. This rationale supports the Bloomberg Philanthropies' recent grants financing "innovation delivery teams" in several mayors' offices.

Concepts like those the Bloomberg fund is backing also provide a way to get at the problem of control systems -- complemented by legions of cautious lawyers using their skills to reduce risks -- that can trap would-be disruptive innovators. Clearly, Roy Ash's idea, to put the "M" in a top-level executive office, works far better when the leader is committed to management not just as a control mechanism but as the driver of change and innovation.

Roy Ash brought to the federal government organizational change that ensures a proper role for management. In 2003, he and his wife Lila endowed the center that now bears their names, creating an institution dedicated to preserving democracy coupled with a belief that government could operate ever more efficiently and effectively. As a result of their gift, we at Harvard can continue to advocate and teach what Roy Ash taught us.

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