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YGL Blog: Is the White House Too Big to Succeed?


Hi all. I’m Dave Uejio, Bureaucrat Jedi and Vice President of Young Government Leaders. After some coaxing from Mr. Govloop with an Awesome Cattle Prod, I’ve pledged to once again blog on a semi regular basis here. Enjoy!

The Frum Forum raises an interesting question today; is the Obama White House too unwieldy to be managed effectively?:

How many people is the President of the United States responsible for managing? How much time is he spending in the office? Could any President manage this number of direct reports given the public travelling and speech making schedule he has decided to pursue?

The President’s Cabinet, including the Vice-President is sixteen people and he has approximately thirty-one czars. The cynic within the author notes with wonder that the President of the United States needs a specific czar to deal with home weatherization efforts. (Note that czars report directly to the President as his eyes and ears on specific issues.) And of course, the President has his own staff of direct reports which, at a minimum, includes David Axelrod, Peter Rouse (Formerly Rahm Emanuel) and Robert Gates.

If, on average, each Cabinet member needs an hour every week and every czar needs an hour a month, and his three closest aides along with the daily security briefings need just a total of two hours daily, the President’s direct reports require a total of about thirty-four hours a week of his time.

This made me think of another article I was recently reading, about Steve Jobs and his rule of 100:

The Mac team they were all in one building and they eventually got to one hundred people. Steve had a rule that there could never be more than one hundred people on the Mac team. So if you wanted to add someone you had to take someone out.

And the thinking was a typical Steve Jobs observation: I can’t remember more than a hundred first names so I only want to be around people that I know personally. So if it gets bigger than a hundred people, it will force us to go to a different organization structure where I can’t work that way. The way I like to work is where I touch everything. Through the whole time I knew him at Apple that’s exactly how he ran his division.

Now certainly Apple and the United States have some key differences as far as organizational design, mission, size and scope are concerned; however the question of how an executive manages a large organization is in some ways a universal.
The conundrum, (too many people, too many actions, 1 me) is a hallmark of bureaucracy; the only thing that differs is the magnitude of the challenge. What we are talking about essentially is priorities and bandwidth, even of (especially for?) great leaders. I personally favor a system of decentralized autonomy with strong accountability and transparency; this sort of approach is championed in the book, “The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations“, but there is obviously no one silver bullet. What is clear is that some organizations manage these challenges better than others. I’m curious to hear your experiences and opinions on the matter.

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Profile Photo Molly Walker

Thanks for posting this, Dave. I’m anxious to see where the discussion goes…

Besides the various czars and the President’s staff of direct reports, what about others in EOP, such as Office of Management and Budget execs? Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me they’d need some management/guidance as well.

Also, do management challenges echo in other sections of EOP? You might be interested in checking out the results of a FOIA request we just reported on. It offers a gilmpse into what may or may not go on at OMB/agency TechStat meetings. FierceGovernmentIT FOIAs OMB TechStat meeting info and TechStat meeting data analysis.