What the Presidential Candidates Should Be Talking About

Policies are one thing. Implementing them is another. The next president needs to pay attention to our intergovernmental system.
March 30, 2016
Bob O'Neill
By Robert J. O'Neill Jr.  |  Contributor
Past executive director of the International City/County Management Association

The more than two dozen U.S. presidential debates and forums to which the global public has been subjected in this election cycle have focused primarily on ideology and idealism. While perhaps entertaining, these events have added little to the discussion around the most important challenges facing our nation: jobs, education, public safety, health care, the environment, infrastructure and race relations.

As the candidates begin to articulate the policy prescriptions for these issues, what we will hear relatively little about is how those policies will be implemented. Yet what we've learned from the Affordable Care Act, the Flint water crisis, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and similar situations is that multi-sector, multi-disciplinary and intergovernmental issues present complex implementation challenges.

What the presidential candidates should be talking about is the ways in which the United States can address the issues that have a direct impact on Americans' quality of life. We know that if results count then management matters, although candidates and newly elected presidents generally learn that bit of wisdom far too late. Regardless of the candidate, party or political philosophy, "execution risk" will be one of the greatest challenges the next president will face -- and one to which he or she likely will pay little attention until something happens that makes the issue impossible to ignore.

As state and local governments gear up to do the heavy lifting of identifying and funding critical social and infrastructure projects, the federal government must adopt the role of partner, manager and convener to ensure that policies are in place that enable the intergovernmental system and government's partners in the nonprofit and private sectors to function effectively and produce results that matter.

I've written frequently about the critical need for an intergovernmental, multi-sector, multi-disciplinary approach to service provision that takes us out of our silos and emphasizes collaboration. But this boundary-crossing will be nothing more than empty rhetoric if it doesn't also focus on what matters most: results.

In a recent article for the National Academy of Public Administration, Governing columnist Donald F. Kettl and I discussed three things the next president could do to improve multi-sector and multi-disciplinary collaboration and reduce execution risk:

• Create with the Domestic Policy Council a new advisory panel comprised of representatives from the private and nonprofit sectors and from state and local governments to bring a fresh perspective to policy development that takes implementation challenges into consideration.

• Establish a multi-agency workgroup within the White House Office of Management and Budget to bring front-line operational debate to the top levels of the federal government's management strategy.

• Develop a career track within the federal government's Senior Executive Service that focuses on cross-sector, intergovernmental and multi-program skills. Participants would rotate across domestic agencies and through state, local and nonprofit partners to gain a keen sense of operational questions and reduce the tunnel vision that too often afflicts top-level federal management.

The challenge for the next administration and for those who lead local, state or federal agencies lies in developing the kind of policies that will unite the three levels of government with the private and nonprofit sectors. There is no need for the 46th president to have to reinvent the wheel of results-driven, intergovernmental collaboration and program implementation; we hear about the mistakes made and the "lessons learned" every day. What the next occupant of the Oval Office can do is focus policy development on "how" rather than just "what" programs are being managed.