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Memo Overview:

Background.  Every President will likely face the need to get big initiatives done sometime during his term of office.  By “big initiatives” means, we mean challenges that reach across agency and program boundaries, oftentimes involving states, localities, citizens, businesses, and the non-profit sector.  Recent examples include responding to catastrophic natural disasters, or undertaking big science projects such as the Human Genome Project, or large-scale administrative responses, such as the implementation of the Recovery Act.  Historical examples include the race to the moon, the construction of the interstate highway system, and the national response to the Y2K computer bug.

Responding to these kinds of big challenges requires a President to operate outside the traditional boundaries of agencies and programs.  It requires that he quickly install a governance and accountability framework that is both agile enough to respond rapidly respond to sudden, unforeseen circumstances and yet stable enough to operate within the rule of law.  The framework will different depending on whether the big initiative is thrust upon the President, such as a large-scale emergency, or whether it is self-initiated, such as the interstate highway construction project. 

Recommendations.  By looking back at previous large-scale initiatives, there are common characteristics that can be incorporated into any new initiatives. For example:

  • There was a shared clarity of goals.
  • There was cross-sector collaboration around common outcomes.
  • There was a sense of urgency and agreement to quickly resolve day-to-day problems.
  • The project provided an unusually high level of transparency.
  • There was freedom to innovate and be free from existing rules.

In addition, the President has new statutory authority to develop cross-agency governance frameworks to pursue large-scale initiatives, under the GPRA Modernization Act of 2010.  To date, that authority has been used to develop a set of goals and track their progress, but the next Administration may choose to use this authority more boldly by using this authority to embrace larger scale initiatives.

Beginning in January 2013, the President should plan to have such capabilities in place so he can use them to advance his agenda.  The memos to be developed will outline a set of actions the President-elect and his immediate staff should take to be prepared, based on past experience.

This memo was jointly prepared by four individuals who have had key roles in big initiatives of several Presidents over the past 50 years and how the federal government has approached large-scale implementation initiatives over that same period. Dwight Ink is President Emeritus of the Institute for Public Administration. Harry Lambright is a Professor at Syracuse University. Timothy Conlan is a Professor at George Mason University. John Kamensky is a Senior Fellow with the IBM Center for The Business of Government.

1. Managing Large-Scale, Time-Urgent Presidential Initiatives (by Dwight Ink)

2. Managing Large-Scale, Non-Urgent Presidential Initiatives (by John Kamensky)

3. Managing Large-Scale Presidential Science and Technology Initiatives (Harry Lambright)

Click here to view the full Memo

Click here to watch John Kamensky and Dwight Ink speak on Managing Big Initiatives.