The Problem with (Largely) Leaving Public Management Out of the State of the Union

It was no surprise that Tuesday’s State of the Union Address focused minimally on public management. It’s an issue that Americans care little about—except when mismanagement happens—and barely notice when it is done well. It is certainly dry; it is very wonky.

Moreover, the State of the Union is often reserved for big ideas and statements of goals. This year’s address was no different, as the President touted economic recovery, talked about “middle-class economics,” and spoke in awe of our nation’s scientific potential.

Public management—the manner in which the agencies of the government are organized, staffed, run, etc.—got a brief mention. President Obama touted Vice President Biden’s work on a jobs training program that “connect[s] community colleges with local employers to train workers to fill high-paying jobs like coding, and nursing, and robotics.”

The President then alluded to the problems facing management at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“And as a new generation of veterans comes home, we owe them every opportunity to live the American Dream they helped defend. Already, we’ve made strides towards ensuring that every veteran has access to the highest quality care.  We’re slashing the backlog that had too many veterans waiting years to get the benefits they need.  And we’re making it easier for vets to translate their training and experience into civilian jobs.  And Joining Forces, the national campaign launched by Michelle and Jill Biden has helped nearly 700,000 veterans and military spouses get a new job.”

That’s it. For the details, needs, and consequences of managing a civilian workforce of 2.7 million people—a brief mention. Of course, this is unsurprising. Despite lofty terms like “second term management agenda,” this administration has seemingly focused little on the hard work and nuance of managing the executive branch. That lack of focus on management can surely be associated with some high-profile failings in the executive branch including mismanagement at IRS, the aforementioned veterans’ health missteps, and a healthcare website that struggled mightily to come online.

The Obama administration is not unique in this sense. Presidencies are notorious for ignoring public management until there is a public failing, a congressional investigation, a whistleblower, or a high-profile media report of a problem. The common failing among presidents to address the issue should not hide how absolutely critical it is for the proper function of government.

Rigorous improvement of public management should be the focus of every administration, at all times—not simply in the face of problems.

In response to this perennial—seemingly continuous—weakness of the executive branch, we are launching a Government Reform Series at FixGov. The purpose of the series is to highlight some of the best work on the topic and draw into focus three key points:

  1. Why public management is important to government, to presidents, and to the public.
  2. What the costs and consequences are of mismanagement and government failure.
  3. What, if anything, can be done about this recurring problem.

The State of the Union Address may not be the traditional place for a discussion of public management. However, maybe it should be. It’s an issue that every administration faces and every administration seems flummoxed by. Raising the profile of management might be a nice first step toward addressing the problem head on. In the absence of the President doing so, we at FixGov will address it over the next two weeks.

Stay tuned!