Overhead Agencies and Permanent Government: The Office of Management and Budget in the Obama Administration
15 Pages Posted: 19 Jul 2010 Last revised: 30 Jul 2010
Date Written: 2010
Whenever a change of administration occurs in Washington, classic public administration issues are brought out of the academic closet. The dichotomy between politics and administration moves from discussion in classrooms and textbooks to the pages of the Washington press. The role of the career bureaucracy is acknowledged as a way a new administration will translate its policy and political agenda to the machinery of government.
During this stage after election results are clear, the term “permanent government” is used with the assumption that everyone knows what it means. But the concept of the “permanent government” is an idea borrowed from the British system that has been rarely applied to the American situation where a system of shared powers and the structure and culture of the US career bureaucracy are quite different than the British Westminster system.
One would expect Obama to take steps to differentiate his administration from the eight Bush years. The language that was used in the early stages of the administration suggested that the Obama White House would work with agency leaders as well as Congress to define effectiveness of programs, identify possible areas of waste, and establish priorities for program assessment. But during the campaign there was minimal attention to management issues and effectively no serious attention to the role of the overhead agencies or the possibility that the new administration might be constrained by past efforts and procedures, not just by individuals with different perspectives. The patterns of centralizing authority in the government-wide settings, limiting the traditional authority and discretion of the programmatic agencies and departments and the role of Congress, were rarely considered.
This article focuses on two management functions on one of the overhead agencies–OMB. They are the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) and the staff within the OMB Management office that has responsibility for performance assessment. They provide evidence of the possible tension between Obama administration aspirations and the orientation of the existing staff.
This discussion of two management efforts inside OMB provides a glimpse of a set of decision processes that is usually absent from a discussion of “permanent government.” It indicates that “permanent government” is more than just career-political interactions. It is evidence that career staff operate differently in different contexts. To understand this role, it is important to look inside the detailed government processes to determine how they operate within the Executive Office of the President.
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