Policy Insight, Volume 1, Issue 1, February 2007

Leading the Executive Branch: Strategies and Options for Achieving Success

by Elizabeth D. Brown, John D. Graham

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The authors examine some of the key strategies past presidents have used to lead the departments and agencies of the Executive Branch. Although centralizing power among the White House staff became the preferred alternative during the 20th century, the authors argue that this strategy insulates the president from valuable knowledge and experience in the departments and agencies. This shortcoming, combined with the unchecked proliferation of departments and agencies, has made it difficult for the president to develop meaningful, trusting relationships with each cabinet member. A comprehensive reorganization, such as the one recommended in 2003 by the National Commission on the Public Service (also known as the Volcker Commission), could redress some of the inherent limitations of centralizing power in the White House. Reducing the number of cabinet secretaries, for instance, could improve the chances that these secretaries will develop more effective, direct, and hands-on relationships with future presidents. Missing from the case for comprehensive reorganization, however, is a systematic study of cabinet agency performance. Before launching into large-scale reorganization, a careful inquiry should be undertaken of the successes and failures of the largest cabinet agencies: the Departments of Defense, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security.

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