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 prevailed.

REFERENCES

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 Press, 1968.

(Manuscript received October 22, 1982)

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