150. "A Top Management Computer," Behavioral Science, Vol.
28 (January 1983), pp. 1-3.
A computerized comprehensive management tracking system for the President of
the United States was created. The technical and political problems of
implementing the system are recounted. This study applies to decision processes
at the organization level.
KEY WORDS: organizations, decision making, computer, management tracking system,
President of U.S.
In the year I served as Senior Advisor at the White House, I spent several hundred hours
in trying to help develop a computer program for the U.S. President. The White House already
had quite a few computers working away. The Secret Service uses one, as is evident to anyone
who is checked into the building. Payroll employs another. However, the one we were working
on was to be quite different--it was to be used for management tracking. It was supposed to have
in its files a list of all directives the President issued (other than to his immediate personal aides),
including those to the various White House staff divisions (12 divisions, about 350 persons), and
to the heads of federal agencies. (National security was to be excluded. It had its own system,
with its special needs for classification and speed.) The computer files were to contain, aside
from the context of the President's instructions, the names, titles, and phone numbers of persons
accountable, and "benchmarks"--tasks to be accomplished by a given date, or the date of final
disposition was needed. The computer was to print out a daily or weekly status report, which
would allow the President, or his aides, to determine easily whether his instructions were heeded
and if work was on schedule, and who was falling behind, possibly on several fronts. The
purpose would not be disciplinary, let alone punitive; one does not typically fire people on this
level. But assignments might be reallotted, additional resources committed, and other
adjustments made in workload.
The reader will have noted already that my account is all couched in hypothetical terms.
This is so because the management computer was not set up, and in this lies a lesson--indeed
several. The lessons are relevant not merely to the White House, but to all top management-tracking computer systems.
THE PROBLEM OF POWER
Managerial computers are not introduced into a vacuum. They are part of a management
system which inevitably contains an organizational structure, which is a fancy term for
distribution of power or authority. People in some positions have an explicitly designated right
to command others. While styles differ--some issue outright commands, some ask their
subordinates first for their views and they wonder if they "mind" following a suggestion-the
power differential is always present. In effect without some sort of power hierarchy,
organizations break down into thousands of pieces, each with its own trajectory and direction.
Within the power structure, access to information is a major form of power. If rank A or
division B knows earlier than others about decisions to be announced, whether sales are up or
down, for instance, it allows the decision-maker to adjust better to change in sales, etc.; in short,
perform better. As computers have become the most important place to store, retrieve, and
analyze information, those who have access to them in a given corporation have a power
advantage over those who do not. This assumes that not all members of an organization have
equal access, which is typically the case. Access means much more than a key to a computer
room or terminal, or command of a password. It means also commanding the skills to query the
computer and digest the information it provides. Most important, the distribution of access
almost never parallels the power structure which existed prior to the introduction of the computer
(or the augmentation of its capacities). As a result, the introduction of computers almost
inevitably changes the power structure of an organization.
What holds for computers in general holds many times over for a management tracking
system. The information such a computer program contains is much more consequential for
power relations than information about practically any other item. Compare the information that
your rival division heads are behind schedule to some changes in the expenditures on research
and development, or to a fall in revenue. Here each item directly points to laggards; is a record
of achievements--or of lapse, if not failure; or contains some other information-outputs relevant
to the incessant power struggle which most organizations know--certainly the White House.
Specifically, at the 1980 White House the issue took the following turn. Richard Harden,
Special Assistant to the President for Information, took one extreme position, best described as
highly democratic. He scoffed at the notion of power struggles, and urged that access to the
computer-to-be would be distributed as widely as possible. (Harden is hardly the only one who
takes such a position. See, for instance, Deutsch, 1963; cf, and Etzioni, 1968.) He suggested that
a terminal with free access to all the computer's files be set up at each one of the White House
divisions, and in the office of the head of each federal agency, as well as, of course, that of the
White House chief of staff. Only such free access, he felt, would remove any fear of the
computer, and a sense it might enhance the control of some divisions over others. Moreover,
only with ready access to the White House files, could the federal agencies be expected to open
their tracking systems to the White House's computer.
Harden's immediate staff and yours truly argued for an access more in line with the
existing power structure. First, the federal agencies are typically fearful of the White House's
power, and try to shield themselves by providing as little information as possible on what they
are up to (e.g., that they "lobby" with Congress against budget cuts in their programs the White
House had called for). (See Califano, 1981.) This fear appeared when Harden and I visited the
Department of Housing and Urban Development to try out Harden's notion of a democratic
computer on a senior staff member. After he overcame his amazement, he exclaimed: "Sure we
will participate in your system--as long as it does not have access to ours." But this did not
dissuade Mr. Harden; he sent an aide to check with other federal agencies.
A similar problem arose regarding the White House itself. It seemed (to me) natural for
the tracking computer to be accessed by the chief of staff and whoever he designates, and no one
else. After all, it was his job to see to it that the President's instructions were followed. The fact
that he was not known for organizational skills, managerial experience, or follow-through was
not a reason to oppose such centralization--on that, contrary, he needed the computer back-up
more than most.
Other White House divisions did not like the idea of such "centralized" access at all; even
the mere possibility of such a development led them to point out all kinds of difficulties in
getting and updating the data the computer needed. Their opposition in the end was one main
reason the tracking system was not set up. A formal decision not to set it up was never made.
But slowly fewer meetings were called about it; fewer memoranda were written; until the
November 1980 elections brought in a whole new crew.
WHAT IS INFORMATION?
A concurrent issue, haunting the management-tracking computer that was not to be, was
what is an item to be contained in it? On the face of it the issue could not be simpler: every
Presidential order was to be included, period. But the President's authority (and that of other
chiefs, say, of larger corporations) is much wider than that embodied in explicit instructions. For
instance, if the President in a speech to a joint session of Congress states that he favors more
appointments of minorities and women to federal positions and more expenditures on child care,
that is not an order in the usual sense of the term. No agency or staff person is designated, nor
accountable, nor is there a due date, nor specific accomplishments to be aimed at. At the same
time, such statements are regularly used by those who favor such developments as an excuse to
behave as if these policies have been authorized, and that they have been instructed to implement
them. (Indeed, they typically seek to influence the President's speech-writers to include such
passages for this purpose--and, thus to circumvent the White House management system.) Also,
a conscientious chief of staff would have to see to it the White House agencies at least not move
in the opposite direction, after such a speech. But how are such "instructions" to be included in a
system of benchmarks and persons accountable?
More subtly, Li President makes endless gestures, promises, and some threats (e.g., to cut
off federal programs in areas in which members of Congress oppose him). These vary greatly in
intensity. Some promises are meant to stay on the books--but not to be pushed--others to be
promoted with maximum vigor. Even assuming that the chief of staff were to rank all gestures
from one to rive according to intensity, would he or the President wish to have this on a record to
which other parties have access? Best, it was said, keep "it" in the tone of voice and frequency
of follow-up (or no follow-up).
Last, accountability is not a simple business either. When it was required that all letters
to a government agency from the public be answered within 10 days, the agency became a model
of performance by answering practically all letters. However, many answers read: "We received
your letter of __________. We are looking into the matter and will be back in touch as soon as
possible." Similar problems are found in the White House. The greater the pressure to account
for programs, the greater the pressure from the staff to negotiate downward what is expected and
to report success, even if it is merely a formalistic closing of a file, etc. Does it pay to have a
high-powered accounting system when one of its major side-effects could be to lower
expectations, and lead to fake results? Many in the White House preferred a much more
informal, but they hoped, more genuine system. At least in the Carter administration they
Califano, J. A., Jr. Governing America: An insider's report from the White House and the
Cabinet. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981.
Deutsch, K. W. The nerves of government--Models of political communication and control.
London: The Free Press of Glencoe, Collier-Macmillan, 1963.
Etzioni, A. The Active Society--A theory of societal and political processes. New York: The Free
(Manuscript received October 22, 1982)