Jack Lew should take a cue from the Nixon era

We recently unearthed the memo, which Nixon advisor Fred Malek drafted for George P. Shultz, then-director of the newly formed OMB. It was an attempt by the 33-year-old future president of Marriott Hotels and Northwest Airlines to outline some of the principal management challenges the agency would have to address in its inaugural years.

"The fundamental problems described [in the memo] would appear to be soluble, but over a long period of time and not all at once," wrote Malek. Four decades is probably longer than Malek anticipated. And he probably would have been appalled if he had known that OMB's challenges would remain largely unchanged well into the 21st century.

Malek made trenchant points that remain sadly true today: The federal government consistently places individuals with little management experience in key management roles, and they develop policies without regard for whether they are actually workable when implemented. Agency leaders devote their energies to putting out politically charged fires, leaving less visible programs without strong managerial guidance. The government struggles to effectively monitor program performance and measure real-world outcomes. Agencies operate in semi-independent silos with separate missions and budgetary obligations defined by Congress. And ineffective partnerships with state and local governments impede program implementation.

Malek's insights are far from groundbreaking. Indeed, the document's power today is not its freshness, but its disheartening endurance. 

Schultz worked hard during the early years of the Nixon presidency to address these problems. He helped establish the short-lived Office of Executive Management to oversee essential management functions and develop a leaner organizational structure for the executive branch. Several presidents have tried similar commendable efforts since, including Bill Clinton's "reinventing government" campaign to improve efficiency and effectiveness through a six-month "National Performance Review" of every cabinet department and 10 agencies.

President Obama has also accomplished much in this area over the last 18 months, such as introducing a new set of high priority performance goals for government departments. But more needs to be done. 

It is regrettable that Fred Malek tarnished his legacy by being the loyal Nixon servant who carried out a presidential order to demote four government officials with Jewish-sounding surnames. Still, Malek's vision for the nascent OMB can guide Jack Lew as he takes the reins in the Eisenhower Building. It is a vision that has never been truly realized but is today tantalizingly within reach: "The entire organization should be attuned to a hard-nosed, results-oriented approach from the beginning."

Jitinder Kohli is a Senior Fellow and John Griffith is a Research Associate with the Doing What Works project, both at the Center for American Progress.

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