How to Present Decisions to POTUS

How to Present Decisions to POTUS

"My job was to be an honest broker"

We’ve covered two White House councils in this newsletter, the Council of Economic Advisers and the National Economic Council. Both play crucial roles in shaping a president’s thinking and implementing his directives. But neither has as sweeping a mandate as the White House Domestic Policy Council. From the White House:

“The Domestic Policy Council (DPC) drives the development and implementation of the President’s domestic policy agenda in the White House and across the Federal government…”

Today, we interviewed Cecilia Muñoz, former Director of the Domestic Policy Council under President Obama. Muñoz held that position for five years, and the position of White House Director of Intergovernmental Affairs for three years. And she led the domestic and economic policy team for the Biden transition.

What You’ll Learn

  • Why did the Biden presidential transition differ sharply from the Obama transition?

  • How do you stop bureaucrats from slow-walking policies they dislike?

  • What decisions never make their way up to the president?

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Most Americans have never heard of the Domestic Policy Council. What is it, and why does it matter? 

There are several policy councils that serve the president. Some people will have heard about the National Security Council or the National Economic Council. Each of them is essentially just a collection of cabinet agencies that work in a particular broad area. The National Security Council, as you might expect, includes the State Department and the Defense Department, and the National Economic Council includes a lot of the economic-focused cabinet agencies.

The Domestic Policy Council is everybody else, but with a lot of overlap: all the cabinet agencies that are focused on domestic issues, like the Department of Justice, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, the Department of Labor, etc. The idea is that the cabinet agencies should be working together on a range of things. It's a vehicle for the president, who technically chairs all of the policy councils, to get the information that he or she needs to do their job and to drive the kind of policymaking that they hope to through the various federal agencies.

As director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, I was essentially the staffer making it all go. That means convening the meetings and organizing the various agencies around whatever goals the administration is trying to achieve. There's communication both ways from the cabinet agencies to the White House, and from the president to the members of the cabinet and their teams. 

The National Security Council has been around since Eisenhower, longer than the National Economic Council and the Domestic Policy Council. As I recall, both those latter two were creations of the Clinton administration. Do you have a sense of why they didn't exist? Why are they relatively recent creations?

Presidents before Clinton had domestic policy advisors. Very famously, Richard Nixon, for example, had John Ehrlichman. I get teased about having occupied the same job as him because he went to jail. The councils were formed in the Clinton years. They created the National Economic Council because they were in an economic downturn and wanted to show that they were focusing on the economy. They created a body to make sure that they maintained that focus. Every president since has done the same. 

Obviously, White Houses structure their operations differently, and any president can decide how they want to approach their org chat. In your experience, are there better or worse ways to use the Domestic Policy Council? 

It's an interesting question. I experienced the Domestic Policy Council from the inside in the Obama administration, because I led it for five years and was in the White House for eight. I also experienced it from the outside for the 20 years before I served in government when I was at a civil rights organization, and now in my roles since I left the government. So I’ve been around the DPC as an outsider, as an advocate, and then on the inside. 

The National Security Council, as I experienced it, tends to have a lot of really formal procedures that, at least in my day, the Domestic Policy Council did not. What I mean by that is the meetings are quite formal, and they can memorialize, “Here’s what happened in this meeting. Here’s what we agreed to.” They circulate that and make sure everybody agrees to it. In my experience, DPC and NEC are much less formal.

In the first Obama term, we had fewer formal meetings. Things tended to happen at the staff level. In the second Obama term, we formalized it a little bit more and had more meetings of principals, meaning the cabinet members themselves, and sometimes with the president, sometimes not. We did not have the formal, “We’re sending you what you agreed to and now we’re going to hold you to it.” Frankly, that takes a lot of staff capacity that we didn’t have.

There are pros and cons to the different approaches to managing the work, both in terms of workload and formality. I worked for a president who was not a particularly formal guy. He got better and better at leading a team over his eight years. He expected us to work as a team and to get along as a team. By and large, we did. 

Say more about the tools to make sure folks on the Domestic Policy Council get stuff done. If you're not sticking to the National Security Council's formal minutes, what else is in the toolkit? 

One technique we used a lot is management by meeting. Pick a topic, let’s say the cost of higher education, which is something President Obama was very focused on. You work at the deputies level, a couple of layers down from the Cabinet secretaries, and work up sets of ideas for the principals. You're trying to meet a deadline: let’s say we want to come up with three proposals for what we request in the federal budget by August 1st. One way that a domestic policy director could make sure that we meet the deadline is to host a meeting every week and say the deputies are gonna meet every week, and in two weeks the principals are gonna meet. 

If you have a bunch of Cabinet secretaries sitting in a room at the White House, you better have a very clear agenda with very clear decisions to make. Essentially, you're using meetings as action-forcing events to meet a deadline or move something forward. Woe to you if you're a staffer and your principal is going to walk into a meeting unprepared because you didn't get the work done. 

It sounds like a lot of the function of the Domestic Policy Council at those lower levels is to simplify and clarify the tasks before the principals, saving them as much time and effort as possible. Is that a fair assessment? 

The further up the food chain you get, from deputies to principals to the president, the harder the issues are. Stuff that can be resolved at the deputies’ level or the staff level doesn't work its way up the food chain, because it's resolved.

President Obama used to remark that he only got the really hard decisions, because the stuff that comes to him is the stuff that either nobody's been able to figure out or the stuff where all of the options are terrible, and we have to pick one.

As you might imagine, because these issues are so hard, sometimes there are disagreements. I worked on overtime rules, and that’s something that the Department of Labor has thoughts on and the Department of Commerce has thoughts on, just to name a couple. That’s not even to mention the National Economic Council, the Council of Economic Advisors, and lots of other folks who are part of the Economic Cabinet. 

The policy council director's job is to surface those thoughts and ensure that if the cabinet agencies aren't going to be able to agree, at least we all understand the disagreement and the evidence base for the various points of the argument. 

My job as a DPC director was to drive the decisionmaking. Either we would agree at a principals meeting and send a joint recommendation to the president, or we would disagree in a principals meeting and send a decision up to the president, either on paper in a memo or in a meeting. My job in such a meeting would be to manage the conversation so that — in an hour, these meetings were almost never more than an hour — everybody felt like they were treated fairly and got a chance to make their argument. I had to make sure President Obama had all the information that he needed to decide in that hour. 

It's essential that everybody feel like the process was fair, because when he makes a decision, we all have to carry it out. If the decision is going to be made via memo, you'd send a decision memo up to the president, explain the issue and what the argument is, and give him a set of options. It needs to be laid out briefly because the president would take, I don't know, 20 or 30 of those memos up to the residence every evening. You don't want to overload him with information.

That's generally how the process worked. My job was to be an honest broker of information, make sure everybody felt that they had a say, and ensure that the decision was fairly made. 

I imagine some parties would like to delay or drag out some of these decisions or issues, and part of your job is not allowing that to happen. 

Absolutely. In some ways, delaying is another time-honored way for the government to work. There are principals and deputies, and then there are a lot of folks in the layers beneath the deputies, including civil servants who are working regardless of what administration and political party is in power. Civil servants have tremendous delaying capacity. If a deputy is asking for information about, say, data related to student loans, and you’re a bureaucrat who’s not interested in the president making decisions in this space, you just slow-walk the information. 

I’ve managed a lot of disagreements, and it’s common for the parties to the disagreement to slow things down, or to say, “Gosh, I really think we need more information. Let’s admire this problem some more before we get to a decision.” There were definitely times when either the president himself or I as a DPC director called the question, because we knew what we were going to know, and they needed to make a decision. 

You mentioned some of the management techniques that you had available to you as director of the DPC to speed processes along. What other tools did you have to help agencies get their rear in gear faster?

I'll describe one process that I take some pride in. In the Obama years, we had quite a big focus on “place-based work.” Government can engage systems, like the educational system or the health care system, and it engages people by, say, providing food stamps or engaging with taxpayers directly in the process of paying their taxes. It also can and should, and in the Obama years did, focus on places. 

Specifically, if you’re the mayor of San Antonio, there are 18 federal agencies that you’re interacting with all the time. You’re going through the door to the Department of Health and Human Services on housing issues, and you are going through the door to the Department of Justice with respect to public safety, but you’re coordinating all of that. Our view is that the federal government could also be coordinating all of that. What if there was only one door that you, as a mayor, could go through to access the variety of ways that the federal government engages with the city? 

We made great progress in establishing that door and in supporting the work of local county executives, mayors, and so on. One thing we did was create ways for federal agencies to coordinate their activities when different agencies were working in the same place. It sounds very simple, but it’s a Herculean task because it requires changing the way the agencies work. 

One of the tools that we developed was just a set of trainings for civil servants, people who were going to be in the government long after we left, to help them develop and sustain the skill sets and the techniques for working in this collaborative way. We had officials and federal agencies actually working on the teams of local mayors and helping them navigate the federal bureaucracy. We learned that those officials loved working in that collaborative way. It reinvigorated them as public servants. 

In addition to implementing these policies, we had to ensure that we left behind a large cadre of federal officials who know how to work in that way and are committed to doing so. We engaged an agency, a nonprofit called the Partnership for Public Service, to conduct training. 

We've trained hundreds of federal officials in this kind of collaborative and place-based approach. They’re still there working in this way in places, and those places are better for it. 

Give me more granularity on that process. If I’m the mayor of San Antonio coming to the federal government, what does that look like? 

A good example is that we designated 20 places as Promise Zones, places with which the federal government was going to partner very deeply. A Promise Zone designation was not a grant, so you didn’t get money, but cities competed to be designated as Promise Zones. 

If you got the Promise Zone designation, you got preference, meaning extra points for some of your federal grant applications. Very importantly, you got a staff person from somewhere in the federal government. We convinced federal agencies to identify people who would be willing to essentially be on the staff of the mayor of San Antonio and help them navigate the federal world.

Sometimes it was a person from the Department of Justice, or from the Agriculture Department, or from HUD, depending on who was available. Detroit, which is my hometown, is an example. The staff person who was designated to help there happened to be from the Department of Energy and had an enormous impact. At one point, the city was updating its streetlights and was about to place an order for standard streetlight equipment. This Department of Energy person said they could use high-efficiency bulbs and helped the city procure the bulbs they needed through a completely different approach. She saved the city literally millions of dollars. 

The mayor of Detroit, who initially, when we said, “You’re going to be a Promise Zone,” said, “Yeah, that’s really nice, but what I would much rather have is money,” by the end of the administration was saying, “Oh my gosh, having a federal official on my team just to help us navigate stuff has turned out to be way better than you, the federal government, just writing us a check.” 

The person who happened to be the federal official is now doing that kind of work. I think she's left the federal government since then, but she's in Detroit, making sure that the federal government's interactions with the city maximize benefits for people.

It sounds like there are some benefits to having everybody under one roof in the DPC. 

Yes. And what you'll focus on will vary depending on who the president is. You're advancing a set of priorities on behalf of the boss, but with a set of officials he has nominated and the Senate has approved. 

At the best of times, you’re helping coordinate a team that really wants to do the things that the president wants to do, and this is how I experienced it. But they are complex and difficult, and at the same time, stuff keeps happening that can throw you off track, like a pandemic. At the beginning, we had a small one, compared to what we have all been through since then, the H1N1 pandemic. That required time, energy, and focus from a lot of federal agencies. You have to manage the stuff that you can’t plan on at the same time that you’re trying to advance an agenda that the president committed to while running for office. The volume and the velocity are really quite staggering. 

In a rough pie chart: how much of your work on the DPC was actively advancing the priorities of the president, and how much was reactive?

I know what I would like the answer to be, but I think that's not what the answer is. It's probably half and half. 

Beyond H1N1, what were your big reactive tasks? 

For the first three years of the Obama administration, I was the director of Intergovernmental Affairs, and then for five years, I was the DPC director. The oil spill happened while I was the director of Intergovernmental Affairs, and gosh, that drew a lot of attention and was almost the entire focus of my job for months and months. I was also responsible for immigration policymaking throughout all eight years. 

As you might imagine, stuff happens in the immigration space that can absorb your time and attention, as it certainly did. The uprisings in Ferguson after the killing of Michael Brown happened during the Obama administration, as well as a bunch of other enormous civil rights and justice challenges, which of course required a response. We had a number of school shootings, as well as the shooting at Fort Hood. Every day there is something that happens that the administration has to respond to, and also you have to stay on course with the president’s goals. 

How many priorities can a president load something like the DPC with before you get too much on the plate? What's the right balance? 

I can't give you a number, but the answer is a lot. It's a big country. It's a complex policy agenda.

Fortunately, I had a staff of maybe 35 folks. I think the DPC staff is bigger now — I certainly hope it's bigger now. And you rely on people in the federal agencies. The bad news is, it’s a lot of issues and they’re all complicated. The good news is you have the whole federal infrastructure to rely on, and your challenge is to coordinate it all. You are relying on a team that works for you at the White House and on experts at federal agencies. 

It’s not like you, as the DPC director, are carrying it all in your head, and that’s tremendously important. The person leading health policy on my team had a PhD in public health. I was never going to know as much as she knows, and that’s okay because I had her. 

How much of the role at DPC involves interfacing with Congress? 

Not very much. There is a whole congressional affairs department at the White House, and their job is to interface with Congress. Then the DPC director is called upon for engagement on the substance. 

If you are driving legislation forward, as we constantly were, then it is much more common for a DPC director to be engaged with the Hill, assuming that's how the congressional operation in the White House is set up. It varied under different chiefs of staff and different leaders of the congressional affairs component at the White House. 

Say a bit more about how it varied. 

One way to do it is for the congressional affairs team to manage all of the conversations with the Hill because they need to be on top of all of the relationships. The policy team informs the legislative team, but the legislative team does the negotiating and arm wrestling. 

The second way to do it is to have those folks side by side, where the legislative team coordinates, but the policy team actually engages in negotiations. 

A third way to do it is for the policy team to drive a legislative conversation with the support of the legislative team. We probably did all of those things, and it varied issue by issue.

This is a good opportunity to switch over. You also led the domestic and economic policy team for the Biden-Harris transition. What does that look like procedurally? 

Every transition decides how it wants to operate. I was involved in both President Obama's and President Biden's transitions, and they were different.

It was very important that President Biden, as a candidate, and the leadership of the transition blended domestic and economic policy. The White House structure is to consider those separately, but we were in the middle of COVID and the economic crisis that accompanied it, and I think the very clear tone that President Biden wanted to set was that this is one category of issues. It is all interrelated, and we’re going to manage it that way. So I led domestic and economic policy as well as agency review. 

A transition doesn’t make policy: there’s a candidate and a campaign making policy commitments. Ideally, a transition allows the president and team to hit the ground running. We focused on commitments that he had made for the first hundred days, those with a time limit or those associated with an emergency. We used to say this all the time: “We’re not trying to boil the ocean. We’re not trying to plan four years of an administration.” 

We also interviewed people from previous transitions, including incoming cabinet members, to determine what was useful to them. Transitions can be memo production factories, where the policy experts who’ve been engaged in the campaign and the transition are eager to document everything that they know and want the new administration to know. It’s too much information. 

One former Cabinet official said he got a trolley full of binders, but what he could have used the most was a page helping him have his budget negotiation with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) as he was going into the job. In this case, we organized a transition around making sure that the president’s Cabinet and his most senior staff would be ready for the first day and the first hundred days. We deliberately did not focus on getting them ready for four years.

What was the difference between that transition and the Obama transition team's focus? Was it not as focused on the first hundred days? 

Again, I came into the Obama transition as the incoming director of Intergovernmental Affairs, so I was not in a policymaking role. We were also in a big economic downturn. But yes, the Obama transition produced that trolley full of binders, and it contained more information than that cabinet member could actually use. I think we learned from that experience and got disciplined about what we were and were not going to do. 

Why was one-pager on dealing with OMB a top-line priority, relative to everything else a cabinet member could be doing? 

Think about what it's like to assume responsibility of a Cabinet agency. Let's say you were a governor, and now you're about to lead an agency with 20,000 employees. One of the first things you want to know is: How is this agency structured? Where does the money come from, and where does it go? How am I equipped to deliver on the promises of the guy who hired me? If I’m not equipped, then what do I need to get that done? That’s got to be the first thing you’re thinking about. 15 binders with a treatise on how every sub-agency works is not helping you. 

You want an incoming cabinet agency to be focused on the president's priorities, and you also want them to get their arms around managing the agency. You must do it in that order. If you start by just getting your arms around managing the agency, it’s pretty easy to get buried in that and never get to the priorities part of the conversation. 

In a press release from a little while ago, you mentioned that in government, you “got a lot of memos about what to do, but almost nothing about how to do it.” Just now, you mentioned the memo production factory. Why is this such a problem? Why is there such a generation of paper for principals?  

Transition operations generally start while the campaign is still happening, and thousands of experts around the country know stuff about various issues, and they all want to influence what the president commits to do. 

Those folks are also eager to inform a transition because a transition is a good opportunity to lock in some nuance of food policy, for example. And of course, there are lots of people who want jobs in the administration, and they figure a transition is a really good place to position themselves for that, and they’re not wrong. 

As you might imagine, there were a lot of Obama administration alumni in the Biden-Harris transition, and a lot of us had experience working with the US Digital Service, which was created in the Obama years. It does user research in order to figure out how to deliver on whatever the policy is. We did a little user research of our own, which is how we found out about the trolley full of binders. 

We geared our operation not to become a memo production factory, and I think it’s the first time a transition has been geared in that way. It’s not to say we didn’t do a lot of writing, but the idea was to get our arms around what the issue was and what the commitment was that the president made while he was running, and then figure out what the officials who were starting right at the beginning needed to know to make that work. That’s what we gave them.  

What did you learn about bringing on personnel between the two transitions? Were there differences between the first and second transitions?

I can't take credit for any of this because I led a policy division of the transition, and other brilliant and wonderful people handled the personnel. But understand this was a transition from the Trump administration to the Biden administration, with very different approaches towards the role of government. There was a high premium on placing people in positions that were relevant to the crisis the country was going through. He made a lot of day-one commitments because we were in the middle of a pandemic, an economic crisis, and there was also a climate crisis that the president identified during the campaign that he was going to be serious about from the very first moment.

The personnel team did a deep dive into what transitions typically do and decided to dramatically up what they produced concerning personnel. They created a team approach to identify which positions were priority positions, identify candidates for those positions, vet those candidates, and drive decisions to the president. He swore in something like 1,500 people on the first day, when a typical administration will swear in 3-400 people. You can see the extent of the production. 

Let me return to the DPC. You and others tightly manage a process to keep the council and agencies on track. What happens when agencies try to circumvent that process? 

Cabinet officials are doing a lot of policymaking that isn’t being driven through the White House. You wouldn’t want all of the policymaking to be driven through the White House, because it’s too narrow a funnel. You want the White House to be focusing on a set of things at the president’s direction, but you want the agencies to be moving in the president’s direction every day on a host of things that don’t necessarily earn the White House’s attention. 

I remember we did a retreat with the senior staff in the cabinet in the very earliest days of the Obama administration. Secretary Gates, who had served as Secretary of Defense under presidents of both parties and was obviously very experienced, told the new cabinet and the new White House team that on any given day, someone in the federal bureaucracy is making some horrible mistake that you’re going to have to fix and pay for. They just need to know that now, that the government is a really big place and there’s going to be stuff that happens that you don’t know about and you don’t control that you’re going to have to fix. Just get ready. 

In some ways, my job involved making sure that there was a good enough flow of information so we had advanced notice if something was about to happen that was going to require message management or fixing and that we were able to respond quickly when something went bad. For example, at one point in the Obama administration, there was an investigation having to do with excessive conferences with extravagant entertainment being hosted by some small agency. The White House is not on top of every retreat that is held by some team within some agency in the federal government, but if a report like that comes out, we certainly own it, and you’ve got to respond. 

A big part of the morning meeting in the chief of staff's office is always devoted to what the principals are deciding on that we need to be aware of, but another big piece of it is what crazy thing we have to manage today. There is never a day without some crazy, unexpected thing, ever. 

When you talk about building better information flows so you're not caught by surprise as much, what did that look like in your role? 

One of the appointee positions is White House liaison to each federal agency. That person helps to manage personnel and information flow, so that’s one way. As DPC director, part of my job was to have a good relationship with cabinet officials so that they felt like there was always a door open and they could reach out if something was happening.

Many of them were eager to enlist me as a partner on stuff that they wanted to get done, which is great. You want to have that kind of relationship with folks in the cabinet and the folks who work for them, because each federal agency is enormous, and leaders are doing important work at various parts of the food chain. That’s the second way. 

My team worked with a bigger cross-section of agencies than I would have the capacity to work with, so I made sure that I had a team that was both driving an affirmative policy agenda and was on the lookout for things that I might have to deal with. 

Tell me more about that team. How does that information gathering and defense work?

I had a substantial team focused on education policy, a substantial team focused on health policy, and a substantial team focused on energy, and then labor and justice issues. All of those folks were working with federal agencies day in and day out, on advancing the broader agenda. They were building relationships with the head of the Food and Nutrition Service or the political appointee responsible for higher education, whoever it is. 

It’s important for the White House officials to feel like partners to folks in the agencies. You don’t want the White House relationship to be, “We are the folks who are demanding that you do X and Y because the president wants you to, and we are the folks who are going to yell at you if something goes wrong.” I think some folks may manage their jobs that way. I did not. That’s just not how I’m wired. 

If it's a team and you are the deputy working with the Department of Health and Human Services, hopefully you have built the kind of relationship where somebody can call you up and say, “There's this thing that just happened that you might want to know about because I think it could blow up.” In my view, the quality of the relationship and the sense of teamwork and partnership really matter to the flow of information. 

You were involved in the Every Student Succeeds Act. What was your role? 

The education bill, which passed in December of 2015, was a bipartisan bill. It passed at a time when Congress was not exactly working in a bipartisan way on anything, so there was great skepticism that this bill was going to be able to pass. Part of the reason it did was that the president was actually committed to working with folks on both sides of the aisle. The lead on the Democratic side was Senator Patty Murray, who had a good relationship with Senator Lamar Alexander, who was the lead on the Republican side. 

My team and I spent a lot of time with both of their offices, reaching a place where we all felt like it was a piece of legislation that was worth passing. I think it’s an important example because it happened at a time when just about everybody had given hope on bipartisanship on anything and two senators were quietly able to work together and to work with the White House, and we passed a bill. The president signed a bill. It certainly wasn’t everything we wanted and it certainly wasn’t everything the Republicans wanted either, but the country’s better for it, and that’s the point. 

At what point did the White House become involved with the bill? 

My team, the domestic policy team, was working very closely with the Legislative Affairs department, and they would send up the call, “It’s time for you to meet with Senator Alexander.” “We think we need you in the room for this conversation with Senator Murray.” The experts on my team and the folks in Legislative Affairs were working very closely with both offices and then they called me in to help drive decisions when they felt the dynamics warranted it.

Why would you get the call from Legislative Affairs on this topic, but not something else that the President is interested in on the Hill? What determines when the White House engages seriously with Senators on an issue? 

A lot depends on the dynamics. For example, Senator Alexander was receptive to meeting with me and, in fact, eager to meet with the White House. That wasn't true in every Senate office. This is true of policymaking in general; the formula required to get something to the finish line is always different and frequently based on the personalities of the players.

Thanks to Chloe Holland for her judicious edits on the written transcript.

In this podcast, we interview top appointees and civil servants about how they managed to achieve a particular policy goal.
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