The White House Needs to Learn When to Delegate

The tendency of administrations to centralize authority in the White House has been going on for years – and it’s been lamented by political scientists all that time. Presidents and their staffs, though, do not understand the fuss. They note that when citizens elect a president, they expect him or her to set the administration’s policy direction, operating through the White House. This makes good sense.

Increasingly, setting policy is not enough. When embarrassed by inevitable government screw-ups, the White House is quick to assert authority over the delivery of government services too. Thus, botched initial responses to Hurricane Katrina, the rollout of HealthCare.gov, and the Ebola crisis, turned Presidents Bush and Obama, respectively, into “implementers in chief.”

Unfortunately, administrations have misread the lessons learned from these infrequent high-level interventions into governmental service delivery issues that are born of necessity. Drawing from these experiences, and feeding off the hubris endemic to the White House complex, staffers have not hesitated to delve into how cabinet agencies implement their statutory and regulatory responsibilities, despite their shortage of experience, expertise, bandwidth and staying power.

When it comes to implementation issues, the administration would be better served by a White House that is more attentive to helping cabinet agencies deliver services in program areas that cross agency lines, where the White House potentially can help bring peer agencies together to improve customer interactions with their government. Here again, however, the tendency is for the White House to nominally “take charge” of these implementation challenges, with executive orders or Presidential memoranda typically asking over-stretched and inexperienced White House offices to oversee complex inter-agency implementation efforts. A more effective and clear-eyed approach would vest accountability for results in the appropriate cabinet agency leaders, with White House officials using their convening and budget authority to assist those leaders in taking the steps needed to improve cross-agency implementation of important government services.

Why the White House is Poorly Situated to Oversee and Improve How Agencies Deliver Government Services

There is no question that the White House has access to the type of firepower that can turn around an implementation disaster. When HealthCare.gov, the web portal to sign up for Obamacare’s signature health exchanges, was first launched, the site crashed and many Americans were left unable to sign up for coverage. The president’s signature policy was in danger of becoming a laughingstock. The president went into crisis mode, appointing Jeff Zients (the administration’s “Mr. Fix-It”) to lead a crack team that got the site up and running within a few months. Another example is last year’s Ebola scare, which caused a short media frenzy before the White House got on message, stuck to Centers for Disease Control recommendations, and saw the massive story disappear.

A powerful White House does not do so well, however, when it comes to improving how the federal government’s far-flung bureaucracies deliver their services to taxpayer/citizen customers. Occasionally, the White House will go “all in” on a high priority delivery-of-services issue, as the Obama Administration did when overseeing disbursement of the billions of dollars doled out under the Recovery Act to stimulate the economy at the beginning of the Administration. More recently, OMB has been pushing to improve the permitting of infrastructure projects, and the National Economic Council has launched a related “Build America” initiative.

But the White House’s small staff can handle few such exercises. And, ironically and unfortunately, one-time successes like the intensive Recovery Act oversight effort tend to reinforce the mistaken view that active White House intervention is the elixir that will help the federal bureaucracy improve how it executes its day-to-day implementation responsibilities.

There are several reasons why that is not the case.

First, the primary role of the White House is to help the president make good policy choices in addressing the key issues of the day – and not to address the day-to-day workings of government. White House staffers are skilled at pulling together information and analysis to set an Administration’s direction on major economic and foreign policy matters. Specialized units in the White House, like the Domestic Policy Council, typically focus on pressing policy issues that are top priorities for an administration, such as – for the Obama administration – immigration reform, civil rights issues, climate change, and the like. In addition, the “crisis du jour” frequently brings unexpected and unwelcome developments to the fore, requiring stretched White House staff to develop short-term responses and the potential reexamination or reframing of administration policies.

Second, the White House cocoon provides a poor vantage point for understanding how the millions of governmental employees operating in scores of agencies are delivering very different types of services to disparate constituencies. There is no single formula for how to most efficiently and effectively deliver government services when its customers range from seniors dependent on social security, veterans needing health care coverage, visitors to national parks, local officials seeking federal housing help, entrepreneurs trying seeking to take advantage of innovation grants, energy companies requesting permits to access federal oil and gas or renewable energy resources, and farmers or ranchers seeking help to deal with severe droughts or market failures.

To improve the delivery of services to these many and varied customers, would-be reformers must understand the purposes and limitations of specific governmental programs, the customer needs associated with such programs, and the unique types of complaints and potential solutions applicable to each context. White House staffers, who will have limited or no on-the-ground experience with such specialized programs, are the wrong people to be put in charge of such efforts.

Third, the White House staff is small and its capacity to stay focused on on-going implementation issues is limited. Staffers can show great facility when working with an agency to find a short-term solution to a program-specific crisis, but dealing with longer-term implementation issues requires staying power that the short-staffed White House – which always must prioritize pressing policy issues and the latest crisis – cannot provide.

Despite these institutional limitations, and perhaps encouraged by the successful, high-profile interventions noted above, White House staff increasingly are inserting themselves into operational decisions that are most effectively addressed at the agency level. Usually, the result is relatively benign – falling into the waste-of-time category — with White House staff pulling senior agency officials into meetings to discuss implementation issues for which White House involvement is adding little value.

Occasionally, however, White House intervention into operational issues can cause real damage by introducing a false sense of engagement and oversight into a process where accountability and responsibility need to be clearly lodged the agency level. The more meetings that “I’m-in-charge” types in the White House call on a subject, the more attenuated the question of who is in charge can become. Agencies can become distracted and/or disempowered by such White House involvement. Implementation efforts can suffer.

Take implementation of the Affordable Care Act, for example. While there undoubtedly are many reasons for the failed launch of the Affordable Care Act’s HealthCare.gov website, it certainly appears that the White House bears some responsibility. In its extensive reporting on the subject, the Washington Post noted that White House senior staffers put themselves squarely in charge of the overall effort, calling frequent meetings and taking on the responsibility to address policy and coordination issues.

Not surprisingly, general White House ownership of the many issues involved in actuating the Affordable Care Act bled into all aspects of the implementation effort – including operational matters. As reported by the Washington Post, White House policy staff “was in charge, but the on-the-ground work of carrying out the law fell largely to HHS.” It continued: “You had the policy people, largely at the White House, pushing the deadlines and tinkering with the policy, rather than the people who had to run the critical operating path design and program the system.”

Having the White House blur the lines between high-level policy decision making – an important strength and responsibility of the White House – and the competent execution of governmental operations – a core agency responsibility – can muddle accountability and create the dangerous sense that both White House and agency personnel share operational responsibility. While the president eventually demonstrated superb crisis management skills in turning around the situation, the stark lesson of the episode is that while the powerful White House can come to the rescue and fix serious, high-profile problems, the White House’s “half-in, half-out” involvement in trying to manage a complex implementation issue comes with significant risk.

Harmonizing the Efficient Delivery of Governmental Services Across Multiple Agencies

But what about situations in which multiple agencies have a role in delivering related services, and where better coordination is needed to more effectively harmonize and deliver those services? Take, for example, the federal version of the DMV, where companies need to line up in front of a proverbial series of windows to obtain approvals from different federal agencies before they can move forward with many large infrastructure projects. Or how about the plight of Alaska Natives, who are frustrated that a half dozen different federal agencies may take actions affecting their subsistence lifestyles, without coordinating with each other, or with them?

And if you are a mayor of a coastal town, wanting to know the best information about how sea rise and storm surge may affect the town’s infrastructure, do you need to check with multiple agencies like NOAA, the Army Corps of Engineers, the US Geological Survey, FEMA and other agencies for answers? Who is making sure that the two federal agencies that regulate different fish species, or the three different federal agencies that need to approve border crossings for power lines, natural gas pipelines or oil pipelines are coordinating with each other in an efficient, consistent, and sensible way?

These implementation problem areas may not be particularly visible to single agencies, but they sure can be aggravating for citizen-customers and their Congressional patrons. Should the White House step in to solve these types of implementation problems?

The answer is both yes and no.

Yes, White House involvement in fostering cross-agency cooperation clearly is needed in some cases. Peer agencies rarely are successful in developing and implementing serious and creative cross-agency coordination mechanisms on their own. Turf battles, differing priorities and resources, and bureaucratic inertia can all get in the way. A higher power typically is needed to force the issue.

But given the White House’s predilection toward policy matters, and its checkered record in addressing implementation issues, should the White House take on questions of improving overlapping agencies’ delivery of governmental services? Can it effectively deal with this complicated implementation challenge and use its supervisory authority to force agencies to work together and deliver improved customer services?

There is a formula for White House involvement in cross-agency implementation activities that threads this needle. The formula takes a middle road, avoiding the extremes of the customary response in which the White House either: (1) goes all in and tries to manage complex, in-the-weeds agency implementation challenges (often unsuccessfully); or (2) papers over the problem by forming a Task Force, calling meetings, and writing a report that chronicles each agencies’ existing practices and lays out a toothless action plan that urges increased coordination or consolidation of practices but little else.

A more effective approach is for the White House to get involved, but step away from trying to quarterback the reform and harmonization of how governmental services are delivered at the agency level. Rather than putting short-staffed and non-expert White House offices in charge of the effort, the White House should be empowering high-level, accountable cabinet or sub-cabinet officials and their deep staffs from one or two agencies to lead complex, multi-agency implementation efforts. The White House would have an important role in backing up the authority of the cabinet officials who are tasked with addressing the issue, including ensuring that other agencies are cooperating with the agency leads, and helping to address budgetary needs. To use a sports metaphor, the anointed cabinet official is the quarterback of the effort. He or she has the resources and responsibility to execute the game plan that the White House, as the coach, has put together and will support (including calling in additional players like OMB and others, if needed).

A number of case examples confirm that this approach can be an effective model for addressing complex implementation efforts in which agencies need to be aligned in how they deliver services efficiently and effectively. First, of course, this is the model that the White House typically employs in responding to physical disasters in which the effective coordination of multiple agency services is paramount. The director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency is the anointed quarterback, and he or she takes charge of the effort to line up all of the other agencies that need to work in tandem to deliver services that are needed on the ground. For “ordinary” disasters, FEMA does this on its own because the White House has empowered it to do so, with minimal check-ins with the White House.

FEMA does this effectively, because it has the staff, the experience, and the know-how of what needs to be done and by whom. The White House does not have that capability. For major disasters, of course, the White House plays a more active role. Even then, however, the White House is the coach, supporting the effort from the sidelines as FEMA lines up the resources and manages their execution on the field.

This formula was extended recently, and very effectively, to line up an effective, longer-term multi-agency response to the Hurricane Sandy disaster. Rather than have the White House “in charge” of the implementation needs, the President appointed Secretary Shaun Donovan, the then-Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, to lead an inter-agency implementation effort. Even though HUD’s jurisdiction was limited to housing-related issues, Secretary Donovan had the staff support and access to resources to effectively manage a large, time-consuming interagency implementation effort in which the on-the-ground awareness and capabilities that only cabinet agencies can provide were of paramount importance. As a cabinet official, Secretary Donovan could and did reach out to his peers for help, and they responded. Secretary Donovan also had the stature and bandwidth to personally engage with key stakeholders, including governors, mayors and others. White House staff monitored the effort, and helped around the edges, but the cabinet-led implementation effort worked.

Similarly, on a smaller scale, when I was serving as the deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior, the White House empowered me – and held me accountable – to lead an Interagency Working Group that was charged with coordinating the permitting activities of the several agencies involved in reviewing and approving energy projects in Alaska. By explicitly naming a high ranking official in a department that had a major stake in the issue, and that had the resources and on-the-ground awareness and expertise to work effectively with peer agencies, the President’s Executive Order 13580 triggered a hands-on, resource-backed process that facilitated information sharing and integrated permitting processes. (Interestingly, the White House previously had tried to broker a better implementation effort among the agencies, without success.) Nesting responsibility within one of the key agencies involved, and then confirming the seriousness of the effort through a Presidential Executive Order, did the trick.

There are a few other fledging efforts to take advantage of agency expertise and capabilities in tackling cross-agency implementation efforts. The White House is sensibly looking to Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz and his team, for example, to help organize the government-wide effort to meet the President’s aggressive energy efficiency and clean energy procurement goals. Nesting this implementation imperative in a department that has the resources and expertise to help other cabinet agencies meld together their common efforts provides a much better hope for success than relying on White House offices to call meetings of agency leaders and turn the effort into a group grope. And having an accountable senior official – here, Secretary Moniz – responsible for the success of the implementation effort also greatly enhances the likelihood that it will be successful.

Despite these promising new approaches for tackling cross-agency implementation efforts, they represent the exception and not the rule. The White House continues to blur the lines between policymaking and implementation, routinely applying its White House-led policy-making apparatus to the much different challenge of improving how agencies deliver services to their customers. It is a meeting-heavy approach, led by stressed White House staffers that typically are not knowledgeable about agencies’ implementation needs and challenges. Accountability for success gets lost in the sea of meetings and discussions that follow.

Addressing implementation of the administration’s new Arctic policy provides a recent example of the phenomenon. After a White House policy process produced a new, cross-cutting National Arctic Strategy document, the next question turned to implementation: how could the many federal agencies involved in the Arctic work together effectively and implement the new national Arctic Strategy? The question became all the more urgent with the Administration’s endorsement of an “Integrated Arctic Management” approach – a classic, multi-agency implementation challenge which anticipates that all affected agencies will work together in reaching out to relevant constituencies and jointly planning their activities in the Arctic, rather than proceeding piecemeal and within their silos, on a project-by-project basis.

But when it came to the tough question of how agencies would operationalize this concept, the White House retreated into its comfort zone, issuing an Executive Order that creates a new White House-led Steering Committee to “Enhanc[e] Coordination of National Efforts in the Arctic.” Chairing what is essentially an agency coordination and implementation effort are two White House offices with little experience in how the twenty or so domestic agencies who share on-the-ground responsibilities in the Arctic might efficiently conduct joint planning, permitting and other implementation activities: the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Security Council. They would be joined on the Steering Committee by four other White House offices, and senior representatives of more than 15 agencies.

The new committee structure potentially could be effective in filling in any policy gaps that remain after issuance of the National Arctic Strategy. The White House-led effort appears to be ill-suited, however, to take on the serious, on-the-ground operational questions that the implementing agencies must grapple with to truly coordinate their activities and implement a unified “Integrated Arctic Management” approach to doing business in the Arctic. A single White House office with expertise in domestic affairs and with direct jurisdiction over domestic cabinet agencies (such as the Domestic Policy Council) should help coordinate how agency decision making across the domestic cabinet agencies are pulled together in a new management framework. And that single White House office should lean heavily on the one or two cabinet departments who dominate decision making in the Arctic pulling in that Department’s staff, expertise and resources, to work with peer agencies and together develop a realistic operational plan that will consolidate services and avoid duplication, would present a much more likely path toward success.

When it comes to these large-scale, multi-agency issues like Arctic management, health care technology, and climate change, the White House simply does not always have the expertise, resources, or staying power to beat entrenched bureaucracies that are skilled at resisting top-down attempts at coordination. White House efforts to bring agencies together and harmonize the delivery of related services across multiple agencies typically fail unless they first work with the agencies to diagnose their implementation challenges and then invest authority and accountability within the implementing agencies themselves to deliver consistent results. The best way to handle a crisis isn’t the best way to handle day-to-day business, and it’s time presidential administrations figured out how to tell the difference.

David J. Hayes

David J. Hayes is a Lecturer in Law at the Stanford Law School and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He served as the Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer of the Department of the Interior for Presidents Clinton and Obama.