President Obama is now in his second term and he seems to realize that his ability to get things done through legislation is limited. So he is very much dependent on his executive powers, including executive orders which can get him partly down the road he wants to go.
As chief executive, he also has at his disposal the formidable executive branch of the Federal government. Every day, millions of Federal employees make decisions affecting the lives of tens of millions of other Americans in countless ways. However, to an outside observer, the President has not adequately mobilized these employees to help him achieve his goals.
Partly this is due to the fact that, like many other Presidents, Governors, Mayors and other public sector chief executives, he has focused on the formal organizational structure of the bureaucracy. But, besides the President’s wishes, Federal employees face pressures from Congress, their own career bosses, the personal agendas of Cabinet secretaries and other political appointees.
This is why in his classic book, Presidential Power, Richard Neustadt starts with the story of President Truman speaking about what his successor, President Eisenhower, would face:
He’ll sit here and he’ll say, “Do this! Do that!” And nothing will happen. Poor Ike. It wont be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.
Many a chief executive in the public sector has heard “yes” many times, only to find out six months later that nothing happened to actually implement that supposed affirmation by staff.
In the election of 2008, many Internet observers were impressed by the Obama campaigns use of Web-based tools and social organization to win a tough primary campaign against the “inevitable”, establishment candidacy of Hillary Clinton. Yet, the lessons of the campaign seem to have been forgotten when the President took office in 2009.
Now the President has another chance and he should consider creating his own “fifth column”. I realize the phrase “fifth column” has negative connotations, since it has designated a group of supporters who are hidden within and undermine the enemy camp.
But that may be exactly what the leader of an entrenched bureaucracy needs – a group of supporters, at all levels, who will help him achieve his goals. The President can mobilize an informal network of the large number of change agents and innovators in Federal service, a network that can exist in parallel to the formal organization. By doing this, he can also provide encouragement to those innovators, who may sometimes feel lonely and could get support from each other.
Of course, there were be those who object to anyone, even the President, trying to sidestep the formal organization chart. That’s nice in theory, but many long time senior executives in Federal service already know that, in practice, its the informal relationships that let them get things done. Why shouldn’t the President learn these same techniques?
Various Internet collaboration tools, like wikis, social media and video chat, make creating this informal network a lot easier than would have been the case decades ago. Indeed, some of this informal network already exists. This week, for example, there is #SocialGov Summit 2013, hosted by the 18-month old Federal Social Media Community of Practice (http://www.howto.gov/communities/federal-web-managers-council/social-media).
Build on that base, expand it to a larger network of innovators and the President may find it easier to get things done – at least in the Executive Branch.
© 2013 Norman Jacknis