"There is every reason," Theodore Roosevelt once said, "why our executive governmental machinery should be at least as well planned, economical and efficient as the best machinery of the great business organizations." Most of this century's presidents have been attracted, in some degree, to the idea that businessmen and the knowhow they employ to direct and coordinate large organizations should be put into the service of government. During eight years as governor of California, President-elect Reagan became known for his corporate board-room style of leadership and for depending on the counsel of successful business leaders. As president, according to a currently popular view, he will be chairman of the board of a business-like administration.
Governmental organizations are not like business firms, and they cannot be run the same way. In making decisions, the government official must be concerned with a much wider range of social consequences than the business executive. For this reason, government officials have much less discretion to act than their private counterparts. Congress, the courts, the media and the White House monitor every action. Public and private concepts of accountability differ fundamentally.
That fact notwithstanding, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, both of whom endorsed business-like administration of government, made a mistake that no chairman of the board would ever make when overseeing his or her company. This mistake, rather than pursuit of a false analogy, undermined the effectiveness of their administrations in achieving their programmatic goals. Both presidents failed in practice to delegate sufficient responsibility for achieving presidential priorities to the "line" officials they appointed to run the federal departments and agencies and to hold these officials routinely accountable for their managerial performance. Indeed, neither spent much time with his Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officers.
Instead, fearing that these officials would "go native" and become advocates for their agencies, the president and his aides exhorted or bullied them to be loyal, meanwhile installing elaborate management, reporting and clearance procedures to police their actions. At the same time, the White House sought to create an alternate political support system operating through the Office of Management and Budget, the Domestic Policy Staff and the Office of Legislative Liaison directly into Congress, external interest groups and the media, so that they would not be dependent upon the bureaucracy.
In short, though both presidents wanted better management, they were reluctant to rely on experienced, politically savvy managers to help achieve it.
A president who makes this mistake is taking great political risks. By cutting himself off from his political root system in the departments and agencies of the executive branch, he is likely to lose touch with the daily give-and-take of the political process and to fail to grasp its implications for his program. The hundreds of committees and subcommittees of Congress control the administration of government through their power to authorize expenditures, advise on and consent to appointments, and investigate executive actions. The 97th Congress will be no different from its predecessors in this regard. Federal judges also control administration through their power to review administrative decisions.
The other branches of government, in other words, control the activities of the executive branch as much as or more than the president. The most effective way for him to come to grips with this reality is to recognize his dependence on, and opportunity to influence, the departments and agencies of the executive branch.
The president-elect can help himself most in this regard by appointing individiuals who will waste little time in taking charge of their departments and by making the effort to establish working relationships of substance with them. Political executives who are accountable to the president personally on the goals he wants to achieve will perform better than executives whose main contact with the president is through staff memoranda that are screened by White House staff advisers and who are second-guessed at every turn. If the president and his White House aides seek merely to coerce subordinate agencies into strict obedience to a central command and control system, they may destroy even the possibility of effective departmental management, and the president's programs will suffer.
Such an approach is not at all inconsistent with the president-elect's board-room style of leadership. Unlike Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan appears to know the difference between being a political leader and being a public administrator. Unlike Richard Nixon, he appears comfortable with delegating authority and sharing power. Unlike both, he appears ready to spend time with his Cabinet officers both individually and collectively and to solicit and follow their advice on the significant issues of his administration.
Yet he could just as easily walk into the same traps as his predecessors. He has indicated that he might regard inexperience and indifference to taking a job in government as assets, rather than liabilities, in candidates for senior positions. Widely discussed is the possibility that Cabinet officers will be asked to spend substantial time in offices provided for them near the White House so they do not get too close to their departments. His advisers have spoken of strengthening OMB's role in supervising the management of federal agencies, and he endorsed the use of the legislative veto, a mechanism that strengthens congressional control of administration. If he adheres to such positions, effective management of federal agencies in the president's interest will be that much more difficult.
Jimmy Carter walked into these traps. As a result, he never became a member of his own administration. Despite his delcared preference for Cabinet government, he kept departmental officials at arm's length and often appeared to treat them as adversaries. Though he insisted on their loyalty, he denied them the support and understanding they needed to carry out his priorities, so they could not be of maximum help to him. When his administration had evidently failed to achieve what he said it would, he, not they, was held responsible.
The effective management of the public's business is a responsibility that the president-elect must regard as his own. His principal means for fulfilling it are his Cabinet and sub-Cabinet appointees, the men and women who will manage in his name. He will be wise to recognize the extent to which their effectiveness depends on him and his political success in turn depends on them. He must pick good people, then insist that they be front-line managers. That is what a successful business leader would do.