Advice for Arne
February 11, 2009
At press time, your boss's stimulus package was hurtling toward final passage. We still don't know how much you're getting of what you wanted. But one thing is certain: you're going to have more discretion over more federal dollars than any education secretary in history. Which is not entirely a blessing. Remember the adage, "be careful what you wish for"?
Getting money out the door of 400 Maryland Ave S.W. is harder than it might look, particularly if you want the dollars to do some good (which you do) and when you don't have much of your own team on board yet to help you (which you don't).
Especially challenging will be your innovation fund. Details are sketchy but it looks like you'll have the authority to make grants to states, districts, and nonprofits to support a wide range of reform initiatives. Doing this quickly--and without the appearance of cronyism--will be a whopping challenge.
The rest of the education stimulus package will be tricky, too. If the short-run economic goal is to save 600,000 teacher jobs, as you have stated, then districts need to be able to use this flood of federal funds to "supplant" state and local dollars that are otherwise on the chopping block. At minimum, that's going to take much written guidance to the field, for it overturns decades of ESEA practice. It might take new regulations, too. And how can you make sure that, in the rush to get money to communities to save jobs, some of that money doesn't get skimmed off or used inappropriately? (Someone will inevitably try to use the funds to buy football uniforms; what are you going to do about it? If you don't do anything, what will the GAO and Inspector General say later?)
The management task ahead is enormous. But do not despair. Here are some bits of advice, much of it hard-earned from mistakes made during our time in government service, and some of it culled from other Education Department alums.
1. Communicate, communicate, communicate. The second the President signs his name to this stimulus bill, every governor, state chief, and local superintendent in the land will have a thousand questions for you. When will the money start flowing? How much will I receive? What strings are attached? What hoops must I jump? What can I use the money for? Can I use the dollars to make up for other budget cuts? How can I stay out of trouble with your auditors? And on and on and on. And the truth is: you won't have answers for all of them, at least for some time. Figuring out this stuff will be messy and tedious. But don't wait till all the t's are crossed before you communicate with the field. That was a mistake made by the Bush Administration in the early days of NCLB and it created a vacuum that led to anxiety, distrust, and generally a bad start. On an almost daily basis, you should be holding conference calls or virtual town meetings with interested parties so you can tell them how things are coming along. Even though you'll have to admit not knowing all the answers at first, being a constant presence and showing that you are listening to everyone's concerns will buy you some time and goodwill. You're already off to a good start on this front; keep it going.
2. Bring in key partners from Day One. Another mistake some of us in the Bush Administration made was trying to figure out our policies in detail internally before selling them to the Hill, the states, the career staff, etc. There are two problems with that "conveyor belt" strategy. First, it takes forever. Second, you set up adversarial relationships. Try a more collaborative approach. Invite key Congressional staffers to spend the next two or three months working at your side at the Department. Invite them (or their bosses) to key meetings. Reach out to governors and state chiefs. Sit down with your Inspector General to help you craft policies that achieve the goals of the stimulus package while minimizing the chances of waste, fraud, and abuse. Also ask her to review your plans for managing discretionary dollars. Trust us. A big reason the Reading First program went down in flames was because the IG never understood that it was meant to advantage certain vendors (with evidence of effectiveness) over others. Save yourself later pain by making the IG your friend. And open your doors to the expertise of senior careerists. You've got some good ones. They understand stuff like grants and contracts and can help keep you out of trouble.
3. Hire managers, not just policy experts. Another mistake most administrations make is to select senior officials based primarily on their known policy positions and their cheering sections in the field. You don't have that luxury. You need political appointees in key roles (like Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education) with experience managing big, complicated organizations and processes.
4. Use your bully pulpit to offer a vision. Most state education departments will be overwhelmed by the task of getting these funds flowing to school districts. That will probably lead to paralysis and a compliance mentality. We saw this during the Katrina relief effort. Hundreds of millions of dollars sat unspent in government coffers because state and local officials weren't sure what they could allocate the money toward. So they waited for direction from Washington rather than take chances that could get them in trouble. A similar dynamic is likely this time around. You need to offer them swift, clear guidance about the nuts-and-bolts of spending this money. But just as important is to encourage states (and districts) to push the envelope, be creative, and use this opportunity to embrace meaningful reform. Your rhetoric about "racing to the top" is a good start, but you should encourage your partners to think big about the entire stimulus package.
5. Be transparent. This is already an Obama administration mantra and for good reason. Particularly when implementing your innovation fund, there's no such thing as too much transparency. That's because discretionary federal dollars are like boiling oil, at least in education. Instead of statutory strings attached, there are non-statutory risks. Two are paramount--and have plagued previous education secretaries. First, when you give money to the QRS organization or project, you're not giving it to the XYZ group. That will anger the XYZ folks, who will complain to you, to the White House, to the Congress, and to the media. If complaining doesn't lead to their palms, too, being crossed with federal dollars, they will lambaste you, QRS, and the program itself. That's another big part of what got Reading First into deep trouble--grumps from those who did not get funded. (Read more here.) And second, you will be accused of favoritism, of giving money to your friends, admirers, and political backers. (But why would you give money to your enemies?) That's what happened when Rod Paige steered dollars toward worthy but controversial organizations such as the Black Alliance for Educational Options or the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence. Some of us on his team erred by distributing these dollars in an opaque manner via "unsolicited proposals." Don't. You'll be much better off if you hold bona fide grant competitions for these dollars--especially if you end up supporting groups with known ties to your team, such as New Leaders for New Schools or Teach For America. This will slow you down a bit but it's worth it.
Historically, Congress has given education secretaries chicken feed by way of discretionary money. It has wanted to direct the flow of federal dollars, whether via formula or via earmark or via competitive-grant programs, which are heavily constrained by legislative language and priorities. The economic crisis besetting the country is changing many things, however, including what sorts of ventures Uncle Sam is getting into, what he's paying for, and how he's going about it. Like everybody else, we hope it succeeds. We're also slightly envious; the administrations we worked in had only miniscule sums to spend on their own priorities. But please consider our advice; it may reduce the odds that you'll get burned by the oil now beginning to bubble in that giant cauldron.