"Micromanagement" of the U.S. aid budget and the presidential allocation of attention.

Author:McKeown, Timothy J.
 
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How presidents allocate their time and attention is a venerable part of the folklore of the presidency. Does a president like to spend time talking with people, or is he a loner? Does the president read a great deal, or not? Does he make a habit of attending National Security Council meetings, or does he rely on subordinates to conduct business without him and then receive a report on the proceedings afterward? How much vacation time does he take at Camp David or his ranch or estate? Even his biological functions are subject for discussion, or at least speculation. Was this president one who needed a lot of sleep? Was the president one who was in a great deal, and so unable to perform much strenuous work? Among journalists, biographers, and the general public, this type of discussion of the presidency is commonplace, and always seems to attract a large and attentive audience.

Aside from the common fascination with the great and the powerful and the desire to understand their daily lives in human terms, the interest in how a president allocates his attention across a range of activities is part of how many people come to evaluate presidential performance. Comments about such allocations of time usually have a normative message--that the allocation is somehow not the right one for the president, at least if the president is intending to serve the public interest rather than this own comfort or enjoyment or his personal political fortunes. Implicitly, presidents are supposed to focus on the "right" issues and activities, which presumably means the big ones. On the other hand, if people hear that the president spends a lot of time on "little" issues that they believe to be the proper concern of a subordinate, then they might come to believe that the president is not performing his duties properly.

Given this level of popular interest in the subject, it is a bit surprising to find that there has apparently been no systematic academic study of how a president or presidents spend their time. Indeed, there is apparently nothing in the literature on high-level government officials of any nation or office that is comparable to Henry Mintzberg's (1973) classic study of how business managers allocate their time and effort. We have an abundance of anecdotes, but no systematic knowledge of the presidential labor process, or that of other high officials.

This is not because the topic is frivolous. Aside from our intuition that how a president spends his time is important, we have some normative literature within microeconomics (e.g., Radner and Rothschild 1975) on how decision makers ought to allocate their attention, as well as a normative literature within political science going back as far as Plato that addresses how leaders ought to conduct themselves. From either theoretical standpoint, a normative concern with the allocation of presidential attention and effort is easy to justify.

From the more modest standpoint of merely explaining presidential behavior, one notices that sometimes presidents seem not to give much attention to projects that their own speech and conduct suggest is something that they monitor quite closely, while at the same time they focus substantial attention on topics the importance of which is hardly self-evident. Two examples from the Kennedy administration illustrate each extreme of this phenomenon. Although the Kennedy administration attached a great deal of importance to securing congressional legislation to enable the president to take actions to expand international trade, Kennedy delegated responsibility for drafting the bill that became the Trade Expansion Act primarily to private individuals (McKeown 1994). On the other hand, Kennedy was prepared to meet with the director of the Development Loan Fund (which after the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act became a part of the Agency for International Development) to discuss at length what that director described as "minute questions of internal organization and procedure," including a discussion of how to get enough Kelly girls for secretarial back-up because the civil service was too slow in filling secretarial positions (Coffin 1964). The juxtaposition of these two incidents suggests an apparently irrational allocation of effort and hence an interesting puzzle to be researched.

Why then has the subject been left to journalists, biographers, and the occasional editorial writer? One reason is common both to the study of corporate CEOs and presidents: the higher the organizational status or rank of an organizational member or employee, the lower the probability that their labor process will be studied in detail. Scientific management as articulated by Frederick Taylor was a way for managers and engineers to gather information about the labor processes that they supervised--it was not intended and seldom has been used to study the labor process of supervisory personnel (Edwards 1979). That surely is an important reason why Mintzberg could find so few empirical studies of the managerial work process, and why he could find only one study of the president-as-manager--Neustadt's (1960), which was based largely on secondary sources. Managers have the formal authority to order studies of the behavior of subordinates, but subordinates lack the formal authority to order such a study of their supervisors (it would be interesting to know whether such studies have ever been included in a collective bargaining agreement).

A second reason for the lack of studies of the labor process of high-level officials is that, based on what Mintzberg tells us, their labor is inherently difficult to study. An assembly line worker typically has a fixed location where the job is performed, a job that is highly routine and repetitive, and few if any organizationally authorized occasions for privacy or confidentiality in the performance of the job. High-level managers, by contrast, move around a lot, they have relatively few routine tasks, their individual tasks do not take much time (hence are easily missed if surveillance is not complete), and they have many authorized occasions for confidentiality. Of course, presidents are much more like CEOs than like assembly line workers.

A third reason is one that by its very nature is difficult to document, so its importance is difficult to assess. High-level officials are often indifferent and sometimes hostile to the preservation of a written record of their activities. For example, one is struck in reading Foreign Relations of the United States how common it is for declassified documents to reference other documents that the archivists cannot find. There is no law that says that government officials have to preserve all of their written work, so it is not surprising that some of it is simply destroyed. The destruction is not necessarily motivated by the desire to conceal some aspect of decision making, but of course it has that effect. It is also common to find that meetings of single officials or small groups of officials with the president did not lead to the writing of a memorandum of conversation. Presidents can also use social occasions to create a pretext for physical proximity to someone whom it would be better to keep off the president's official schedule. For example, when Lyndon Johnson wanted to meet with George Woods, then president of the World Bank, to discuss U.S. aid and World Bank loans to India during the peak of U.S. concern about a drought and famine that struck that country in the 1960s, he arranged to have Woods invited to a large dinner at the White House. (1) Because Woods was never invited to such social occasions before or after the period when Johnson's interest in coordinating with the bank was this intense, it is reasonable to suspect (but very difficult to confirm) that the invitation to a social function was a way of getting Woods into the White House without triggering the curiosity of reporters or diplomats about the purpose of his visit. Finally, restrictions on declassification constitute a last line of defense. Because many of those who evaluate declassification requests are retired career officials who might have been personally involved in the issues that are the subject of the documents, it would not be surprising if they sometimes choose not to declassify material that does not portray their actions in a flattering light.

Fortunately, attempts to study the daily activities of the president of the United States have one signal advantage over corresponding attempts to study just about any other high-level official, public or private: the presidency is probably the best-documented job in the world. This is partly because of the constant stream of paper that enters and leaves the president's office, the frequent preservation of written appointment books and guest lists, the availability (at least in principle) of Secret Service logs that detail the movements of the president and whom he saw at what times, as well as the coverage of the president by news media assigned to the White House. These sources are potentially of enormous value in reconstructing the daily activities of a president. (Unfortunately, "potentially" is the appropriate term because these sources are drastically underexploited, and seem to have escaped systematic study entirely.)

These official sources are sometimes supplemented by record-keeping activities established by presidents themselves. Perhaps out of a sense of history, or for more prosaic political reasons (in Kennedy's case, the immediate motive seems to have been to keep an accurate record of conversations so that others would have a much more difficult time misrepresenting the substance of those conversations after the fact; Doyle 1999), several presidents beginning with Franklin Roosevelt have resorted to tape recording some of their activities. Such taping was selective rather than comprehensive, so it is helpful primarily as a way of filing in gaps in...

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