Time to review the ‘M’ in OMB

Given its size, OMB, though it "punches above its weight" may not be ideally suited to all of the tasks asked of it.

Like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Management and Budget is a creature of the Nixon era. It superseded the Bureau of the Budget. Occasionally you hear congressional calls for re-establishment of a purely budgetary bureau in the executive branch. But at least OMB gets its annual request in each year within a month of the deadline.

Sometimes people outside government conflate the West Wing with OMB. Technically, they’re both part of the Executive Office of the President, if not the same in the pecking order. The West Wing resembles a buzzing nest of ambitious, partisan hornets who serve the queen or else, while often poking their stingers at one another. But the majority of OMB’s 500-odd employees are career civil servants who could probably help this or that president more than the White House Mess-privileged crowd often realizes.

The Bill, W and Barack administrations revved up OMB by using it to carry out a long list of federal management reforms. Some of them — data center consolidation, online government, procurement reform and shared services, for instance — span all three of them in one form or another. The terminology changes as the technology has changed, but streamlining is a goal every administration pursues.

The Nixon era also spawned the term, “imperial presidency,” the title of a 1973 book by Arthur M. Schlesinger. The serious and unrelenting accumulation of executive power in fact started during the Depression. Or maybe the Civil War. Now that we have the modern White House, warts and all, it may as well function effectively.

As the Partnership for Public Service points out in the latest tome to suggest ways of updating OMB, between the George W. Bush and Barack Obama issued nearly 600 executive orders. Clearly we have a very large and powerful administrative state, and the hub at 1600 Pennsylvania has become a fountainhead of that power. A president’s OMB is a heavily used instrument to at least try and carry out a good portion of those orders. Given its size, OMB, though it “punches above its weight” (to use the Partnership’s phrase) may not be ideally suited to all of the tasks asked of it. So when it’s good, it’s very good, but when it falls short the results can be awful.

The recommendations in From Decisions to Results: Building a More Effective Government Through a Transformed Office of Management and Budget range widely. Many are standard good-government fare. But you’ll find some fresh ideas too. Fostering more interagency collaboration and issuing fewer orders, for instance. And using the budget to incentivize good management initiatives and results. Another is to bring more state and local government views into its orbit. Given the metastasizing federal influence in environmental, law enforcement, judiciary, education, voting and many other areas, in some sense it’s the least the White House can do.

None of the burgeoning library of advice for the next administration would be complete without a prescription for innovation. The Partnership suggests OMB extend its role in incubating innovation, along the lines of the U.S. Digital Service model.

Management practices wax and wane. Any large organization must review its structures and norms periodically, not to respond to fads like “total quality control” or “matrix management” but to function most effectively in its current circumstances. Any incoming president ought to think about how he or she is going to get things done. And how best to enable the 500 people who stream in next door,  past the big magnolia bushes, dedicated to helping.

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