Today's Management Challenges Echo the Past

A memo from a 1970 Office of Management and Budget official still resonates four decades later.
by | September 20, 2010 AT 1:30 PM

Let's jump into Marty McFly's plutonium powered DeLorean for a journey back in time, to the earliest days of the federal Office of Management and Budget. In 1970, an OMB official under Nixon by the name of Fred Malek wrote his boss a note "to highlight some of the major problems in managing the federal government."

The memo is a gem. Full of wisdom, it is stunning how many of the challenges noted in it are relevant today. Managers at all levels of government can benefit from the insights in this four decades old missive.

Challenge #1: "Management considerations are often given insufficient attention when policies are being developed." Still true today. The architects of policy in Congress tend to focus on the political features of a new program, as opposed to crafting something that is implementable. Notes Malek, "This lack of attention to management at the critical early stages is the cause of many of the interagency conflicts and operational problems in major programs at later stages. For example, the Medicaid and Medicare programs were formulated without sufficient concern for how they might operate."

Co-author Bill Eggers and I found that federal managers were still frustrated by this "design-free design" problem today. The Medicare prescription drug benefit's disastrous early days can be chalked up to a design that didn't give adequate attention to implementation issues.

Challenge #2: "Neglect of less visible tasks." Malek notes that politicians tend to focus on the next new thing, and ignore the successful implementation of last year's program. The result, says Malek, is "a tremendous lack of follow-through after a key new initiative has reached its peak of visibility... There is gross neglect at the top levels of the less appealing problems of effective administration."

Has anything changed here? Politicians have their picture taken at the bill signing ceremony, but they are nowhere to be found when the grunt work of implementation actually takes place.

Challenge #3: "Inability to measure results." Here, Malek argues that our tendency to ignore follow through is exacerbated by a lack of measurable results. In one sense, performance measurement has come a long way since 1970. Thanks to the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) and other OMB initiatives, agencies and programs routinely report on many output measures. We have much better data about the impact of various programs. But the underlying problem noted by Malek endures: "We just cannot tell objectively whether someone has done a good job."

The Government Accountability Office reported in 2004, after ten years of GPRA, that despite some progress, "in certain areas, federal managers continue to have difficulty setting outcome-oriented goals, collecting useful data on results, and linking institutional, program, unit, and individual performance measurement and reward systems." This challenge vexes all levels of government. The unending conundrum of "measuring" and rewarding good teachers, for example, seems no nearer resolution.

Challenge #4: "Poor working relationships with state and local governments." I think we can safely say this challenge endures. I was recently in a room filled with top administrators from many of the nation's largest cities, talking about dealing with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Their sentiment can be summed up thus: "Instead of making us follow crazy grant rules, I'd rather they just sent us half as much money with no strings attached." Ouch.

Challenge #5: "Organization." Malek here specifically points to the fact that bureaucracies spring up around individual pieces of legislation, and thus encourage a "silo" structure where numerous, uncoordinated federal stovepipes are serving, or attempting to serve, the same population. "The federal government has totally inadequate capabilities to give assistance to states or localities in packaging various federal programs to meet local needs." True in 1970, true in 2010.

I stumbled upon the Malek memo thanks to an article by Jitinder Kohli and John Griffith of the Center for American Progress. As they put it: "Malek's insights are far from groundbreaking. Indeed, the document's power today is not its freshness, but its disheartening endurance." Sub sole nihil nove est.

But why be disheartened? Managing in the public sector has unique features and challenges all its own. Being aware of these challenges is a good first step, not in "solving" these problems, but in working to deliver the best possible results despite the challenges.

Fred Malek was just 33 years old when he wrote his memo. He went on to become president of Marriot Hotels and Northwest Airlines. As he noted in 1970: "Management problems in the federal government are probably even more difficult than those in private industry..." With the benefit of hindsight, I think Malek might have deleted the word "probably."

What is Malek doing today? He's the Chairman of Virginia's Commission on Government Reform and Restructuring. Like Marty McFly, he's fighting battles from the past, because the future is depending on it.