Max Stier is president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service.
Donald Trump campaigned for the presidency as a billionaire businessman who would bring private-sector expertise to Washington. But as he quickly discovered, it is much harder running the federal government than a family enterprise.
The White House got off to a rocky start during its first weeks, appearing disorganized and in turmoil at times. Every new administration has encountered speed bumps and made mistakes, having never faced the enormous task of managing such a large, complicated enterprise as the federal government.
The true test, however, will be how fast Trump and his team adjust and whether they will learn the right lessons from this baptism by fire.
Based on the experience of past administrations, here are steps the president and his team should take to manage the government better, create more orderly decision-making processes and engender greater public confidence:
Accelerate the nomination of agency leadership teams. Running the U.S. government is a team sport, and the Trump administration is behind in putting its team on the field, even if the president intends to leave some positions unfilled, as he indicated this week. The president’s personnel operation must step up its game, selecting hundreds of political appointees needing Senate confirmation as quickly as possible — starting with the deputy, under- and assistant secretaries, chief financial officers, general counsels and ambassadors. While no prior administration has gotten a full complement of political appointees in place quickly, the increasing danger and volatility of our world raise the standard for this president. Every president faces the unexpected, and Trump will need his team in position to respond to crises that the world will inevitably throw at him.
Empower the Cabinet. There is a big difference between operating a bed-and-breakfast and a Trump hotel. There is an even bigger difference between running a large corporation and a government with $4 trillion in yearly spending, 2 million civilian employees, hundreds of agencies and 535 members of a board of directors known as Congress.
The government is too large and complex to micromanage everything from the White House, where urgent issues crowd out important matters and complete information is hard to come by. Former defense secretary Robert Gates criticized President Barack Obama for consolidating too much power in the White House, arguing that the president’s staff should respect the role of the Cabinet secretaries and make them partners in policymaking. To successfully address the diversity of issues managed by our government, the president will need his White House to set the direction and coordinate activities but expect autonomous action by agencies and their leaders. Trying to run everything through the tiny White House pipe is a recipe for getting little done and allowing smaller problems to mushroom into crises.
Seek out people who understand how our government works. You can’t drain the swamp without the expertise of people who understand swamps, and when it comes to government, you can’t successfully change the system without naming political appointees in deputy and other agency leadership jobs who know the ins and outs of the agencies and their operations. Bringing in outsiders without experience to shake things up sounds fine, but you need a strong subset of people with a clear understanding of the government you are trying to change.
Don’t view career civil servants as the enemy. The president and his Cabinet face a big challenge of making full use of the skills and expertise of the career workforce. Trump needs to find ways to work with — not go to battle against — the people in his own administration to be successful.
The president will set policy and should expect it to be carried out by federal employees. But he should also create decision-making processes that allow experts inside the government to have a voice, to offer ways to improve policies and to raise red flags that could help avoid embarrassment or prevent harm to the nation. Slamming the door on authorized channels for dissent or dialogue will result only in increased leaking of information, creating unnecessary firestorms.
Remember that implementation matters. Thomas Edison aptly observed that vision without execution is hallucination. It is one thing to issue executive orders and make grand policy announcements; it is another to carry them out. How policies are implemented is critical — a lack of attention to detail has burned many an administration, caused scandals and political fallout, and set back the best-laid plans.
One of the great tests for highly successful individuals taking on new and different challenges is whether they are able to adjust to the changed circumstances. President Trump has the opportunity to demonstrate he can be an effective leader on the biggest stage in the world, but he will need to change his playbook and management approach if he wants a well-functioning government that meets the needs of the American people.