Opinion: Why Would Any Self-Respecting CEO Want to Be President?

“If anything, “writes Kamarck,” the differences that exist between the two classes of employees have gotten worse as the government has gotten bigger and more complicated and as the political system has gotten more polarized and hostile.”  The bigger problem is that political appointees do not stay around very long. Between 1960 and 1972, 59% of all cabinet secretaries stayed on the job about two years. But at the level of undersecretaries and assistant secretaries—the grunts who are responsible for most of the heavy lifting when it comes to the implementation of policy—fewer than half stayed on the job more than two years.

By contrast, career employees are around for much longer spans of time. Senior civil servants can be around as long as 30 years. They know where the bodies are buried, as they have served under numerous presidents. If they don’t want to do what the president tells them, they can simply wait him out. Plus, civil servants outnumber the president’s appointees by about 1,000 to 1, and the president can’t get rid of them because their jobs are protected.

Donald Trump would be disappointed to learn that his command, “You’re fired,” would apply to very few employees. President Johnson exploded when told that some bureaucrat at Health Education and Welfare had “nipped a Great Society program in the bud.” When told by an aid that the president ought to “fire the S.O.B.,” Johnson roared back: “Fire him, I can’t even find him!”

“A director of the National Weather Service was punished for transferring $30 million from the travel budget to the critical forecast budget to avoid layoffs—a decision that would have been rewarded in the private sector.”

There is a second material difference between managing people in the government and the private sector. Federal employees work under a set of rules designed to impede managerial discretion to a degree unthinkable in the private sector. Because of the way Congress writes laws, many agencies find it impossible to transfer money from one part of the budget to another. Congress’s reprogramming guidelines are intended to control executive branch spending. Setting aside the political concerns, this has the practical effect of preventing managers from making sensible financial decisions.  A director of the National Weather Service was punished for transferring $30 million from the travel budget to the critical forecast budget to avoid layoffs—a decision that would have been rewarded in the private sector.

Despite having the trappings of power—a big house, Air Force One, Camp David, and scores of aids and attendees—the president is in charge of a vast entity over which he has limited power.  No doubt this frustration is one reason Barack Obama feels he has to resort to his “phone and his pen” in writing many of his executive orders.  It is unlikely any CEO from IBM’s Lou Gerstner to GE’s Jack Welch would tolerate such a situation.

One might think that some sort of early warning system could be set up to give a president a heads up. The management wing of the Office of Management and Budget was set up in 1970 to do just that, but no one at OMB is charged with systematically looking for management weakness or problems.  The problem is familiar to private company CEOs. When an organization is in trouble, people often lie or manipulate the data. Building dashboards to understand performance in large organizations has not prevented government failures. Used improperly, they can create a false sense of security. Also, to the rest of government, OMB is where budgets are cut. As a result, career officials in other agencies are loathe to share too much information with OMB.

So given the impediments that are built in, can a leader from the private sector have any hope of making a difference in government? McKinsey studied this issue and came up with a cautious yes—provided one follows a regimented prescription.

1. Establish your agenda—an overarching aspiration and a limited set of priorities. Understanding an organization’s context is vital, particularly in government institutions where so much of the staff is nonpolitical and has been there for many years and so many of the external stakeholders (for example, Congress, state and local governments, the press, and voters) have a say in what you do.